Arctic foxes suffer while reds thrive in northern Canada
4 January 2013 Last updated at 03:01
Arctic fox sightings in northern Canada are at an unprecedented low this winter, according to wildlife guides.
And, unusually, the number of red foxes has simultaneously surged in the area, on Hudson Bay.
The surprising pattern has prompted observers to question whether the elusive Arctic foxes are being driven out of their dens by invading red relatives.
"It stopped dead, turned and ran," says Tera Ryan, wildlife guide at polar expedition company Churchill Wild, describing the time she witnessed an Arctic fox's reaction to a red fox travelling away in the distance.
"In the Arctic you conserve energy... This was running for fear. He did not want to be seen by that red fox."
Famed for their bright white coats in winter, delicate Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) are not much larger than a domestic cat. Yet with their thick, insulating fur and increased blood circulation they are adapted to thrive in some of the world's most extreme conditions.
Previous studies have indicated that larger and more aggressive red foxes moving northward may outcompete their Arctic cousins for food and even kill the smaller species when the two collide on the same territory.
Arctic fox populations naturally fluctuate from year to year depending on the availability of their main food source, lemmings.
But the wildlife guides at Seal River lodge on Hudson Bay have reported the lowest number of Arctic fox sightings for years, despite what they say is a good year for lemmings.
The team have reported an average of two Arctic foxes spotted near their observation lodge in the same day, whereas "it would not be unusual to see a dozen or more per day in an average year," says Churchill Wild's Mike Reimer.
"Last year we had Arctic foxes everywhere you looked and no coloured foxes. And this year is completely different.
"This year it's coloured foxes... we've got red, silvers, crosses. And we've had the odd Arctic fox try to come in and the coloured [ones] are much more aggressive so they drive them off."
Red foxes may struggle to cope in harsh winters
But biologist Dr Jim Roth from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada says that while it is "possible" a surge in red foxes this season could have a temporary impact on Arctic fox numbers, the dip is more likely to have been caused by another factor such as food resources, disease or parasites.
Dr Roth's annual observations of both Arctic and red fox dens around the Arctic town of Churchill show that the success of the two species is highly correlated.
"However, in 2011 Arctic fox den success was among the lowest ever recorded, while red fox den was among the highest," he says.
Dr Roth concluded that a different prey species such as snowshoe hare may have been abundant in red foxes' forest habitat but was not available to Arctic foxes hunting on the tundra terrain.
Despite this evidence, some experts believe that red foxes gradually moving further north are a major threat to Arctic foxes.
In Russia, reds have been observed taking over Arctic fox dens and scientists have occasionally found Arctic fox remains around some red fox dens.
"Being bigger, the red fox tends to exclude the Arctic fox from its habitat," explains Dr Dominique Berteaux from the University of Quebec, Rimouski (UQAR) in Canada.
"They occupy the same ecological niche and are in direct competition."
However, Dr Roth argues that in general, "changes in food availability and disease" are "more likely to have greater impacts" on Arctic fox numbers.
The change in red fox distribution, with the species pushing further northwards, has been associated with climate change in the Arctic.
Warmer conditions allow red foxes to travel further north as they are more likely to survive without the special adaptations of the Arctic species.
But Dr Berteaux, who has conducted a number of studies into Canada's Arctic foxes, believes we may actually be more directly accountable for the species' movement.
"Red foxes follow humans," he tells BBC Nature.
"In the last 60 years many villages have established in the Arctic and red fox benefit from the dump sites where they scavenge on human garbage."
Dr Bertaux simply summarises that the red foxes "have more food available now than in the past" but his fellow biologists continue to debate the issue.
Tigers Making a Comeback in Parts of Asia
Strong government actions helping the big cat, scientists say.
The Indochinese tiger (pictured) is a subspecies growing in number.
for National Geographic News
Published December 28, 2012
Tigers are making a comeback, thanks to strong government initiatives in India, Thailand, and Russia, scientists announced this week.
Joe Walston, executive director for Asia Programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), praised the three countries for taking action to protect their tiger populations. The animals are endangered globally.
There are six remaining subspecies of tiger that live in 13 Asian countries—a habitat that's reduced by 93 percent from their historic range.
"There are a number of factors that are necessary for tigers to come back, but without true government commitment, there will not be any success," Walston said.
Taking Steps to Save Tigers
In India's Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks, for example, a combination of strict antipoaching patrols, surveillance, voluntary relocation of people away from tiger habitats, and scientific monitoring have helped the big cats rebound to the point where they have saturated the two national parks.
This success is only possible because the Indian state of Karnataka is dedicated to conserving tigers, Walston said.
In Russia, government officials are drafting a new law that makes the transport, sale, and possession of endangered animals a criminal offense rather than just a civil crime. This closes a loophole that currently allows poachers to claim they found endangered species like tigers already dead.
Russia also recently announced that it was creating a new corridor for safe tiger passage called the Central Ussuri Wildlife Refuge, which would link tiger breeding strongholds in Russia and China.
Corridors "allow tigers to move between different areas to breed and connect up," Walston explained. "This makes for larger, more robust, and genetically healthy populations."
In Thailand, enforcement and antipoaching patrols have been beefed up in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. In 2011 the government busted a notorious poaching ring, and this year the gang leaders were given prison sentences of up to five years—the most severe prison sentences for wildlife poaching in Thailand's history. Since the gang's capture, there have been no known tiger or elephant poaching incidents in the park.
What's more, "Thailand last year had a poaching problem, and instead of ignoring it, the government recognized the problem and hired 60 new rangers," Walston said.
Tigers Can Bounce Back
But these three success stories are rare bright spots for the endangered species, whose numbers continue to hover at all-time lows worldwide due to the combined threats of poaching, loss of prey, and habitat destruction.
Conservationists estimate that only 3,200 tigers exist in the wild.
Even so, Walston said the successes in India, Thailand, and Russia prove that tigers are not doomed—and he hopes other countries will take notice.
"This is not a species that is on an inevitable decline ... They are coming back in some places," he said.
Walston also pointed out that saving tigers has other benefits.
"When we conserve tigers, we're actually conserving a whole host of species that are maybe not as charismatic or iconic but are equally valuable—and equally threatened," he said.
Scientists Discover Evidence of Giant Panda's Population History and Local Adaptation
Dec. 16, 2012 — A research team, led by Institute of Zoology of Chinese Academy of Sciences and BGI, has successfully reconstructed a continuous population history of the giant panda from its origin to the present. The findings suggested whereas global changes in climate were the primary drivers in panda population fluctuation for millions of years, human activities were likely to underlie recent population divergence and serious decline. This work reveals a good example for assessing and establishing the best conservation method for other endangered species.
The latest study was published online in Nature Genetics.
The giant panda is the rarest member of the bear family. Looked upon as the ambassador for all endangered species, it is a well-recognized symbol of international wildlife conservation. The giant panda is currently threatened by continued habitat loss, human persecution, among others. Its dietary specialization, habitat isolation, and reproductive constraints have led to a perception that this is a species at an "evolutionary dead end," destined for deterministic extinction in the modern world.
In this study, researchers carried out whole genome resequencing of 34 wild giant pandas and found the current six geographic populations of giant panda could be divided into three genetic populations, including Qinling (QIN), Minshan (MIN) and Qionglai-Daxiangling-Xiaoxiangling-Liangshan (QXL). Through reconstructing giant panda's population history, they found several important evolutionary events such as two population expansions, two bottlenecks and two population divergences.
The giant panda has a very special bamboo diet, while its ancestor was omnivorous or carnivores. As early as about 3 Myr ago, they probably had already completed their dietary swift and pygmy panda emerged with bamboo as its primary diet. The warm and wet weather at that time provided ideal conditions for the spread of bamboo forests that further led to the first population expansion of giant panda. However, about 0.7 Myr ago, the panda population began to decline due to the two largest Pleistocene glaciations happened in China, and its first population bottleneck occurred at about 0.3 Myr ago. During that period, pygmy panda was gradually replaced by another subspecies -- baconi panda that has larger body size.
After the retreat of the Penultimate Glaciations, giant panda's second population expansion happened and it reached its population peak between 30~50 thousand years (kyr) ago. The warm weather in the Greatest Lake Period (30~40 kyr ago) and alpine conifer forest may play an important role in the flourishing of the panda population. However, during the period of last glacial maximum (LGM), the climate was cold, dry, and inhospitable with frequent storms and a dust-laden atmosphere. Under such harsh environment, extensive panda habitats were loss and its second population bottleneck occurred.
The more recent panda population history showed that the panda population separated into Qinling (QIN) and non-QIN populations at about 0.3Myr ago, and then the non-QIN cluster diverged into two populations, the Minshan (MIN) and Qionglai-Daxiangling-Xiaoxiangling-Liangshan (QXL) at about 2.8 KYA ago. Subsequently, the three populations were different in the ways of fluctuation. For example, there was a drastic decline in the QIN, a slight increase in the MIN and a more remarkable growth in the QXL populations.
Researchers identified the signals of panda's local adaptation. They found the largest group of selected genes in these populations was related to sensory system. However, the two genes, Tas2r49 and Tas2r3, were associated with bitter taste and were under directional selection between the QIN and non-QIN populations, showing no signal of directional selection between MIN and QXL populations.
As a form of olfactory communication, odor perception is crucial for reproduction and survival of giant pandas in the dense forest. Researchers found the MIN and QXL populations had fewer directionally selected genes than QIN and non-QIN, suggesting less variation happens in the selection processes between MIN and QXL. They also found the evidence that population fluctuations were driven by global climate shifts, but recent human activities have likely caused population divergence and the serious recent decline.
Shancen Zhao, Project Manager from BGI, said, "We have identified three genetic populations of giant panda for the current six geographic populations lived in western of China. The varied local adaptations found in our study provide invaluable resource for researchers to better select effective conservation methods to rescue the giant panda even other endangered species. The translocation of wild-caught individuals or releasing the captive-bred ones may be a feasible approach. "
‘Famous’ Wolf Is Killed Outside Yellowstone
By NATE SCHWEBER
Published: December 8, 2012
The wolf that researchers called 832F, left, was shot on Thursday. The alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack, she wore a tracking collar. The wolf with her, known as 754, was killed last month.
Yellowstone National Park’s best-known wolf, beloved by many tourists and valued by scientists who tracked its movements, was shot and killed on Thursday outside the park’s boundaries, Wyoming wildlife officials reported.
The wolf, known as 832F to researchers, was the alpha female of the park’s highly visible Lamar Canyon pack and had become so well known that some wildlife watchers referred to her as a “rock star.” The animal had been a tourist favorite for most of the past six years.
The wolf was fitted with a $4,000 collar with GPS tracking technology, which is being returned, said Daniel Stahler, a project director for Yellowstone’s wolf program. Based on data from the wolf’s collar, researchers knew that her pack rarely ventured outside the park, and then only for brief periods, Dr. Stahler said.
This year’s hunting season in the northern Rockies has been especially controversial because of the high numbers of popular wolves and wolves fitted with research collars that have been killed just outside Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Wolf hunts, sanctioned by recent federal and state rules applying to the northern Rockies, have been fiercely debated in the region. The wolf population has rebounded since they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to counter their extirpation a few years earlier.
Many ranchers and hunters say the wolf hunts are a reasonable way to reduce attacks on livestock and protect big game populations.
This fall, the first wolf hunts in decades were authorized in Wyoming. The wolf killed last week was the eighth collared by researchers that was shot this year after leaving the park’s boundary.
The deaths have dismayed scientists who track wolves to study their habits, population spread and threats to their survival. Still, some found 832F’s death to be particularly disheartening.
“She is the most famous wolf in the world,” said Jimmy Jones, a wildlife photographer who lives in Los Angeles and whose portrait of 832F appears in the current issue of the magazine American Scientist.
Wildlife advocates say that the wolf populations are not large enough to withstand state-sanctioned harvests and that the animals attract tourist money. Yellowstone’s scenic Lamar Valley has been one of the most reliable places to view wolves in the northern Rockies, and it attracts scores of visitors every year.
Photo of Rare, Mysterious Cat Wins Competition
Date: 29 November 2012 Time: 05:42 PM ET
This rare, mysterious cat species, called an oncilla, was photographed by a camera trap in Bolivia's Madidi National Park in July 2012.
A rarely seen Bolivian wild cat species was photographed by a camera trap in one of the country's national park, the first time it has been spotted there.
The photo of the cat, called an oncilla, won a category of a camera trap competition run by the magazine BBC Wildlife.
The oncilla, about the size of a house cat, is found throughout the Amazon and the tropical Andes. The cat is rarely spotted, and little is known about its life history, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), whose researchers took the photo as part of a camera trap survey in the area in July 2012.
The survey captured photos of jaguars and other wildlife in Madidi, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. The 7,335-square-mile (19,000 square kilometers) park hosts 11 percent of the world's birds, more than 200 mammal species, almost 300 fish species and 12,000 varieties of plants. This wide array of species is found in an equally diverse set of ecosystems, from lowland tropical forests to the peaks of the High Andes.
With this evidence that the oncilla dwells in Madidi, the number of confirmed cat species in the park now stands at six, with two more waiting to be confirmed, the WCS said in a statement.
WCS researchers Guido Ayala, Maria Viscarra and Robert Wallace submitted the photo in the New Discoveries category of the BBC Wildlife competition. The winning entry received £1,000 (approximately $1,500), courtesy of Paramo Directional Clothing Systems and the World Land Trust. The photo is featured in the December issue of the magazine.
Eastern Wolves Deemed Separate Species
OurAmazingPlanet Staff - Nov 26, 2012 05:38 PM ET
A gray wolf (Canis lupus). The eastern wolf, Canis lupus lycaon, qualifies as a separate species, according to a new review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eastern wolves, which used to live in the northeastern United States, but now remain only in southeastern Canada, qualify as a distinct species from their western cousins, according to a review by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists.
The finding may be important for the future of North American wolves and could help scientists understand how the animals evolved, as noted by USA Today.
In the study, published in October in the journal North American Fauna, the scientists reviewed decades of research on North American wolves, much of it complicated and contradictory. Some studies found 8 subspecies of gray wolves; others suggested as many as 27.
Previously, scientists considered eastern wolves a subspecies of gray wolf, Canis lupus lycaon (pronounced LY-can). However, the new review of reams of genetic data suggests that the animal should be classified as a separate species of wolf entirely.
A tale of three wolves
Eastern wolves would join two universally recognized species of wolves in North America: gray wolves (Canis lupus) and red wolves (Canis rufus). Gray wolves once ranged throughout most of modern-day America, but were hunted and poisoned to the brink of extinction, maintaining only a single population in northern Minnesota, the study noted. The animals have since recovered slightly and been reintroduced to Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park (although hunting has since resumed in Minnesota, Wyoming and elsewhere).
Red wolves were also wiped out from their native range, but have been reintroduced into North Carolina and are thought to be breeding in the wild, according to news reports.
The study found that eastern wolves are most closely related to red wolves, and that both species evolved from a common ancestor shared with coyotes. This helps explain why eastern wolves can still mate with and form hybrid offspring with coyotes, so-called "coywolves." Gray wolves, on the other hand, are known to kill any coyotes they come across.
Smaller than their western cousins, eastern wolves weigh from 62 to 77 pounds (28 to 35 kilograms), according to the study. They preferentially prey on white-tailed deer, unlike gray wolves, which have a more wide-ranging diet, USA Today reported.
According to USA Today, the recent study lends support to an account made by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book "On the Origin of Species," in which he wrote: "There are two varieties of the wolf inhabiting the Catskill Mountains in the United States, one with a light greyhound-like form, which pursues deer, and the other more bulky, with shorter legs, which more frequently attacks the shepherd's flocks."
This had looked like another one of Darwin's mistakes, but the recent study suggests his words may have been prescient.
The study could impact the reintroduction of wolves in North America, as it may not be appropriate to move eastern wolves into areas where they weren't previously found, for example. However, study's potential uses remain far from clear.
The authors are careful to state that their findings don't have any bearing on the actions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which delisted gray wolves from the Endangered Species List in the Great Lakes in 2011, according to USA Today.
Sneaky Cat Caught on Camera in Himalayas
by LiveScience StaffDate: 29 October 2012 Time: 11:32 AM ET
Here, kitty! The Pallas's cat comes in for it's camera-trap close-up.
An elusive thick-furred feline has been caught on camera for the first time in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
A camera trap captured images of the fluffy Pallas's cat, also known as the manul, in the country's sprawling Wangchuck Centennial Park (WCP), which is also home to the snow leopard and Himalayan black bear. Pallas's cats had never been documented in the region before, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
"This is an exciting and remarkable discovery that proves that the Pallas's cat exists in the Eastern Himalayas," Rinjan Shrestha, a conservation scientist with WWF, said in a statement. "This probably indicates a relatively undisturbed habitat, which gives us hope, not only for the Pallas's cat, but also the snow leopard, Tibetan wolf and other threatened species that inhabit the region."
The Pallas’s cat, photographed this year in Bhutan’s Wangchuck Centennial Park, had never before been documented in the region.
The cat is a primitive species that has evolved little in the past 5 million years. It's about the size of a house cat and slightly resembles a Persian cat with its flat face, high-set eyes and thick coat, which keeps it warm at high altitudes. The Pallas's cat's distinct gray fur with dark spots on its head also helps it blend in with mountainous habitats across Central Asia.
Bhutan's park service and a WWF team surveying snow leopards in the region set up the camera traps, which first snapped a photo of a manul in January, then in February and April. In one shot, the cat appears to be sneaking right up to camera in for a close-up, staring right into the lens from the bottom-right corner of the frame.
Researchers say the photos prove that the Pallas’s cat exists in the Eastern Himalayas.
The Pallas's cats are vanishing from some parts of Central Asia, including the Caspian Sea region and Pakistan's Baluchistan province, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed it as a near threatened species. Poachers target Pallas's cats for their fur, as well as their fat and organs, which are used in traditional medicines in Mongolia and China, according to conservationists.
Bhutan might be a good place for the cats to take shelter. More than 60 percent of the country is under forest cover, and a quarter of its territory has been designated as national parks or protected areas, with its rugged mountains and valleys considered hotspots for biodiversity.
Rarest dog: Ethiopian wolves are genetically vulnerable
By Matt Walker
Editor, BBC Nature
26 October 2012 Last updated at 09:09
Populations of the world's rarest dog, the Ethiopian wolf, are genetically fragmenting, scientists say.
Fewer than 500 of Africa's only wolf species are thought to survive.
Now a 12-year study of Ethiopian wolves living in the Ethiopian highlands has found there is little gene flow between the small remaining populations.
That places the wolves at greater risk of extinction from disease, or habitat degradation.
In a study published in the journal Animal Conservation, Dada Gottelli of the Zoological Society of London and colleagues in Oxford, UK and Berlin, Germany, quantified the genetic diversity, population structure and patterns of gene flow among 72 wild-living Ethiopian wolves.
The team sampled wolves living within six of the remaining seven remnant populations, as well as from one population at Mount Choke, that has since become extinct.
They found that genetic diversity was relatively high for a species that has declined to fewer than 500 individuals.
That may be because discrete populations of wolves survived in Africa after the last glaciation period, which ended 18,000 years ago, and a number of rare gene types became fixed and maintained in these separate groups.
However, this isolation is now working against the wolves.
Researchers studied gene types at 14 separate locations on the wolf genome. They found that there is now weak gene flow between the Ethiopian wolf groups.
That could be because, like other canids such as grey wolves and red foxes, Ethiopian wolves prefer very specific habitats and are unlikely to travel long distances.
That makes it unlikely that the wolves will join other groups, which would provide an opportunity to mix their genes.
More worryingly, the researchers also found that sub-populations within each population are also isolated.
The Ethiopian wolf separated from its wolf-like ancestor 100,000 years ago when it colonised the Ethiopian highlands.
Today it is adapted to life above altitudes of 3,000m, where it preys almost exclusively on high-altitude rodents.
But only six populations survive, with a further three having become extinct over the past century.
Ethiopian wolves are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of rabies, a fatal disease that has reduced some populations by up to 75% within a few months.
Another major threat to their future comes from habitat loss and fragmentation, which may be accelerated by climate change.
The concern raised by the study is that the limited gene flow between Ethiopian wolves makes them increasingly vulnerable, as they might not have the genetic diversity needed to fight off disease or adapt to new habitats.
The limited migration of wolves also increases the risk of inbreeding.
The scientists say that efforts must be made to reconnect these isolated populations, by creating habitat corridors linking them.
"It may be necessary in the near future to artificially increase population size and restore gene flow between nearby populations," the researchers write.
That could mean moving male wolves between populations to trigger fresh breeding.
Studies on other species of wolf have showed that moving just one or two males in this way can dramatically increase genetic diversity.
DNA Confirms Genetically Distinct Lion Population for Ethiopia
ScienceDaily (Oct. 11, 2012) — A team of international researchers has provided the first comprehensive DNA evidence that the Addis Ababa lion in Ethiopia is genetically unique and is urging immediate conservation action to preserve this vulnerable lion population.
While it has long been noted that some lions in Ethiopia have a large, dark mane, extending from the head, neck and chest to the belly, as well as being smaller and more compact than other lions, it was not known until now if these lions represent a genetically distinct population.
The team of researchers, led by the University of York, UK, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, has shown that captive lions at the Addis Ababa Zoo in Ethiopia are, in fact, genetically distinct from all lion populations for which comparative data exists, both in Africa and Asia.
The researchers compared DNA samples from 15 Addis Ababa Zoo lions (eight males and seven females) to lion breeds in the wild. The results of the study, which also involved researchers from Leipzig Zoo and the Universities of Durham and Oxford, UK, are published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.
Principal Investigator Professor Michi Hofreiter, of the Department of Biology at the University of York, said: "To our knowledge, the males at Addis Ababa Zoo are the last existing lions to possess this distinctive mane. Both microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA data suggest the zoo lions are genetically distinct from all existing lion populations for which comparative data exist.
"We therefore believe the Addis Ababa lions should be treated as a distinct conservation management unit and are urging immediate conservation actions, including a captive breeding programme, to preserve this unique lion population."
The lion (Panthera leo) is the principal terrestrial predator in Africa and therefore a key species of the savannah ecosystem. Lion numbers are in serious decline and two significant populations of lion -- the North African Barbary lions and the South African Cape lions have already become extinct in the wild.
One of the regions with a declining lion population is Ethiopia. In addition to a few hundred wild lions scattered throughout the country, 20 lions are kept in the Addis Ababa Zoo. These lions belonged to the collection of the late emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He established the zoo in 1948 and the seven founder lions (five males and two females) are claimed to have been captured in south-western Ethiopia, although their geographical origin is controversial.
In their study, the team of researchers recommend establishing a captive breeding programme as a first step towards conserving this unique lion population.
Lead author Susann Bruche, now with Imperial College London, but who conducted the research with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said: "A great amount of genetic diversity in lions has most likely already been lost, largely due to human influences. Every effort should be made to preserve as much of the lion's genetic heritage as possible. We hope field surveys will identify wild relatives of the unique Addis Ababa Zoo lions in the future, but conserving the captive population is a crucial first step. Our results show that these zoo lions harbour sufficient genetic diversity to warrant a captive breeding programme."
It has previously been suggested that no lions comparable to those at Addis Ababa Zoo still exist in the wild, mainly due to hunting for their mane. However, the researchers say that according to the Ethiopian authorities, lions with a similar appearance to those at Addis Ababa Zoo still exist in the east and north-east of the country, notably in the Babille Elephant Sanctuary near Harar and southwards to Hararghe. These regions, the researchers say, should be prioritised for field surveys.
Professor Hofreiter said: "A key question is which wild population did the zoo lions originate from and whether this wild population still exists; this would obviously make it a priority for conservation. What is clear is that these lions did not originate in the zoo, but come from somewhere in the wild -- but not from any of the populations for which comparative data is available."
A group of lions at the Addis Ababa Zoo in Ethiopia have dark manes that cover their chest and belly.
Susann Bruche, Markus Gusset, Sebastian Lippold, Ross Barnett, Klaus Eulenberger, Jörg Junhold, Carlos A. Driscoll, Michael Hofreiter. A genetically distinct lion (Panthera leo) population from Ethiopia. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 2012; DOI: 10.1007/s10344-012-0668-5
Snow Leopards in Pakistan No Longer Wild, Expert Says
By eating mostly livestock, rare cat now dependent on people.
A snow leopard in Pakistan's Chitral region.
Photograph by George B. Schaller, National Geographic
National Geographic News
Published October 9, 2012
The snow leopard in Pakistan is an endangered species. The population of the rarely seen big cat has likely fallen to fewer than 450 in the country, mainly due to hunting. Now an expert has come up with an unconventional—and controversial—proposal to save the snow leopard: Classify it as a domesticated animal.
That doesn't mean that snow leopards are literally tame, like a chicken, explained Shafqat Hussain, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who spoke during the National Geographic Explorers Symposium in Washington, D.C., in June: "When I say that snow leopards are like domestic cats, I mean it rhetorically to make contrast with the word wild."
His idea stems from the changing relationship between snow leopards and humans. Where the cats do remain in the Himalaya, they increasingly share their habitat with mountain herders. A 2010 study of snow leopard scat found that up to 70 percent of the species' diet in the Gilgit Baltistan Province (map) comes from sheep, cattle, and other domestic animals. Some herders have killed snow leopards in retaliation for preying on their livestock.
Given the snow leopards' diet, "how do we see these mythical, elusive wild animals? Are they really wild in the sense that of meaning we attach to the word wild—existing on its own, having no connection with society and domestic economy?" Hussain said.
So the way to enable snow leopards to survive, says Hussain, is not to create protected areas that sequester them from local communities. That solution often alienates farmers, who lose their grazing areas as a result. He would suggest supporting local herders instead so they can make a living despite snow leopard incursions.
And that's exactly what he's been doing for more than a decade. In 1999 Hussain founded the Snow Leopard Project, an insurance scheme that compensates local people in snow leopard-range countries if their livestock are killed by the predators.
Various branches of the successful project, which is jointly managed by project officials and a committee of villagers, have spread to 400 households covering 3,000 animals across central Asia.
Since 1998, close to U.S. $7,000 has been paid out in compensation for lost animals, and $13,000 invested on improving livestock corrals and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, the snow leopard population seems to have remained stable, if not grown, Hussain said.
Snow Leopard Perspective Controversial
Not everyone agrees. In fact, there is great consternation in the big-cat conservation community about Hussain's ideas, particularly that conservation groups don't work with locals.
Tom McCarthy, executive director of the Snow Leopard Program for the big-cat conservation group Panthera, said that he doesn't "know a single conservation [nongovernmental organization] working on snow leopards today that would support setting up reserves for the cats at the expense of local people."
For example, before Hussain set up the Snow Leopard Project, McCarthy and colleagues founded the award-winning Snow Leopard Enterprises, which helps local people in snow leopard countries generate income.
Conservation biologist and snow leopard expert Jerry Roe also said by email that relabeling the snow leopard as domestic will not resolve the conflict between snow leopards and herders or benefit the species.
For one, "a change of definition will not alter the perspective of snow leopards as a pest species in the eyes of herders," said Roe, co-founder of California-based Nomad Ecology, an ecological consulting and research company.
Living With Snow Leopards
Hussain thinks the objections are just not valid. Local people—at least in Pakistan—do not have an "atavistic enmity to snow leopards, [nor] this itch to kill it," he said. "If they get compensated for their losses, they have no interest in eliminating this animal."
Such is the case with Mohammed Ibrahim, chairman of Skoyo Krabathang Basingo Conservation and Development Organization in Krabathang, Pakistan (map), who also owns 15 goats. In a phone interview with an Urdu interpreter, Ibrahim said that he's not worried about snow leopards, mostly because of insurance schemes such as Project Snow Leopard that compensate herders for lost animals.
And since snow leopards have never been known to attack people, Hussain is confident that his scheme would work far better than a conservation policy that separates the leopards from the locals: "The idea of co-existing with snow leopards is easy to implement if you satisfy the villagers."
Ultimately, conservationists share the same goal: Ensuring that the snow leopard—what Hussain calls a "symbol of the high mountains"—can survive. Whether that will continue to be an animal dependent on people for food, though, is still up in the air.