Although human population density in snow leopard landscapes is relatively low, its habitats are heavily used by people whose livelihoods depend on traditional livestock herding. With growing human populations, livestock herds are growing too and in some places exceed the capacity of the land to support them. The resulting overgrazing leads to degradation of rangeland and may result in soil erosion. Competition for food with large and growing domestic livestock populations also reduces wild prey numbers, which already live at relatively low densities due to the low productivity of the habitat.
With agro-pastoralism extensively practiced across snow leopard range, there is great potential for competition for grazing resources between domestic livestock and the wild herbivores that make up the main prey of the snow leopard.
4.1. Livestock competition and overgrazing
Pastoralism and agro-pastoralism are the predominant land uses and sources of local livelihood within snow leopard range, with seven range countries having over 25% of land area under permanent pasture, > 50% of their human population involved in agro-pastoralism, > 40% living below national poverty levels, and average per capita annual incomes of US$250-400 (Mishra et al. 2003). For centuries humans have co-existed with wildlife practicing nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralism herding sheep and goats flocks, cattle, horses, yaks and camels. Although relatively few humans live in snow leopard habitat, their use of the land is becoming increasingly pervasive, resulting in escalating conflicts between conservation and livestock production even within protected areas (Jackson et al 2010).
For example, Mongolia is among the world’s leading pastoral nations, with rangelands covering 83% of the country’s 1.29 million km2 (Scharf et al. 2010). During the past few decades, the number of livestock has increased to 36 million animals, with sheep and goats doubling in response to the emerging global market for cashmere (Berger et al. 2013). A combination of failing management interventions and introduction of free market economies has contributed to the rapid decline in ecological condition and stability of rangeland resources, especially in Mongolia’s southern desert-steppes (Bedunah and Schmidt 2004; Behnke 2006). Communal respect for seasonal grazing restrictions and long-held pasture rest-rotational practices have been severely compromised in many areas, notably Mongolia, portions of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and many high altitude rangelands in the Himalaya. Mishra et al. (2001) concluded that most rangelands in Spiti (northern India) were overstocked with domestic herbivores that amounted up to 10 times the biomass of wild herbivores.
Traditional rotational grazing and seasonal use of different pastures has increasingly been eroded by changes in grazing practices, land ownership and official policies that promote sedentarization and settlement of herders in centers (see e.g. Harris 2008 for western China). A combination of failing management interventions and introduction of free market economies has contributed to the rapid decline in ecological condition and stability of rangeland resources in Mongolia’s southern desert-steppes (Bedunah and Schmidt 2004; Behnke 2006).
Supplementary winter feeding leads to overstocking especially during the critical winter season. These changes, along with more restricted seasonable movements are resulting in widespread overuse of fragile pastures and associated long-term problems with soil erosion and desertification. High-elevation pastures may also be damaged by collection of shrubs for use as fuel: this is a particular problem with teresken (Eurotia ceratoides) in the Pamir of Tajikistan (Breckle & Wucherer 2006).
Overgrazing reduces the quantity and quality of rangeland resources for the principal prey species of the snow leopard, while the presence of livestock, and especially shepherds and dogs displaces them to other areas, often sub-optimal.
Suryawanshi et al. (2009) reported that the blue sheep’s winter diet is primarily governed by graminoid availability in rangelands; since livestock grazing reduces such availability, they recommended the creation of livestock-free areas with community support in parts of the pasture land for the conservation of this and similar grazing species in the Trans-Himalaya. Retzer (2006) confirmed forage competition between livestock and the Mongolian pika (Ochotona pallasi), which he concluded was able to harvest forage more closely than domestic stock. Mishra et al. (2004) showed competitive depletion of blue sheep in areas of high livestock density, while Bagchi et al. (2004) found that sheep and goat compete with ibex for forage, often excluding ibex from using pastures if flocks are accompanied by shepherds and/or their dogs. These investigators estimated that livestock such as sheep, goat, horse, cattle and yak removed large amounts of forage from pastures (up to 250 kg of dry matter per day by certain species). However, Shrestha et al. (2006) found little competition between blue sheep, argali and domestic livestock in Nepal, concluding that competitive pressures between livestock and wild ungulates tend to be site specific.
Other factors that have led to ecosystem-level disruption include the policy of eradicating pikas and voles in China may compromise ecosystem functioning and species diversity (Smith and Foggin 1999). However, these authors like others also point to changes in traditional pastoral practices and overstocking as the root cause for rangeland degradation, including desertification.
4.2. Cordyceps collection
Cordyceps sinensis is a parasitic fungus that parasitizes on the larvae of the ghost moth Thitarodes sp. and this fungus-caterpillar combination is highly valued for traditional medicinal purposes. Demand has increased significantly in recent years and the price rose by 8 times between 1998 and 2008 and the product now sells for $8000 per kilogram (highest quality can retail for up to $100,000/kg). As a result, Cordyceps has become the most important source of cash income for many rural households in parts of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (Winkler 2008). County governments in Tibet operate a licensing system, but the high value of the product has also begun to attract large numbers of outsiders in Nepal and elsewhere. Digging in search of Cordyceps damages the rangeland surface and this damage can be very severe in sites where a high density of collectors is present. The physical damage to mountain pastures presumably reduces the quality of grazing for livestock and wild herbivores, while the presence of so many people increases the factor of disturbance. So far there has been no quantified assessment of an impact on snow leopards, but the potential of this emerging threat requires careful monitoring
4.3. Prey declines
Declining prey numbers due to illegal hunting were rated as a high threat to snow leopards in nine of 12 range countries (Chapter 6 Illegal Trade). Poaching of mountain ungulates takes place mainly for meat but occasionally for trophies or ‘sport’, even within some protected areas. A contributory factor is weak enforcement of existing laws and chronic under-resourcing of protected areas that leaves staff with inadequate means to carry out regular and effective patrols. There can be no doubt that a shrinking prey base will impact negatively on snow leopards and other predators, although at present quantitative evidence is lacking.
Pasture and Grazing Management
Research required prior to taking action:
• Determine wild ungulate range and identify key sites (e.g. birthing; rutting, important pasture)
• Determine human land use patterns and underlying socio-economic drivers for livestock selection, herd size, land-tenure and local governance systems
• Collect baseline data on pasture quality, numbers of wild and domestic ungulates
• Estimate carrying capacity of grazing areas, with emphasis on identifying areas where overstocking is causing adverse ecological damage, and negatively impacting range and herd productivity
• Identify ways to sustain pastoral livelihoods with minimal impact to rangelands, including incorporating appropriate traditional knowledge and grazing management governance systems
Table 4.1: Grazing & Pasture Management – Suggested Action Guidelines
Click to download PDF of this Table.
Improved Livestock Husbandry
Research required prior to taking action:
• Identify target area where wildlife and livestock conflicts exist.
• Determine extent of overgrazing; forage competition and disease prevalence
• Determine baseline data in terms of livestock health and financial impact of disease
• Determine baseline data on livestock numbers and financial returns
Table 4.2: Improved Livestock Husbandry – Suggested Action Guidelines
Click to download PDF of this Table.
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