Major infrastructural developments are either planned or under construction in different parts of the snow leopard’s range, particularly in those countries undergoing rapid economic growth like India, China, Russia and Kazakhstan. These include mineral exploration and extraction, new gas and oil pipelines, new road and rail transportation networks, and hydro-electric power facilities associated with large or medium-sized dams.
As water shortages increase in the densely populated lowlands of South and East Asia, so the need for upstream water-storage facilities are expected to grow significantly. As economic development of the region proceeds, so it becomes increasingly important for range countries to put into place, or act upon, existing regulations in order to minimize negative environmental impacts through careful planning, appropriate mitigation measures and related “Best Practices.” Addressing this sector will comprise an important component of both GLSEP and NSLEP action toward securing 20 snow leopard populations range-wide by the year 2020.
This sector is considered a key engine of economic development by many countries, and may contribute greatly to GDP. However, there are not insignificant risks that such mining operations will also result in negative socio-economic and environmental impacts. Attention to social and environmental considerations and government commitment to good governance and transparency is thus important (The World Bank, 2005; 2006; http://www.worldbank.org/en/results/2013/04/14/mining-results-profile).
Snow leopard range countries such as China, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan are rich in minerals and other extractive resources like natural gas and oil (Baker et al. online from US Geological Survey 2010). A network of major roads and railroads is being planned to transport the products southward to China, potentially bisecting wildlife habitat and migration routes in the South Gobi region (Heiner et al. 2013, Ito 2013).
Afghanistan also harbors large untapped energy and mineral resources like chromium, copper, gold and semiprecious stones. Small-scale gold mining occurs in Mongolia’s South Gobi, in isolated but widespread places on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau and other parts of snow leopard range. The impact of mining, and associated indirect threats such as poaching of prey and opening up new areas and disturbance, are considered serious (Wingard and Zahler, 2006).
Proposed liquid gas and petroleum pipelines bisect known or potential snow leopard habitats in the Tien Shan Mountains. These include gas pipelines (labeled as G19, G31, G10) in the Kazakhstan-China border area to Urumqi and Lanzhou, along with proposed routes into the Tarim Basin which separates the northern and southern populations of snow leopards. In addition, one proposed pipeline routes from Russia traverses the Altai Republic’s sacred Ukok Plateau, though a more northerly route may be selected instead.
8.3. Electric power
The huge glaciers of the Himalaya and parts of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau have been designated as the “Water Towers of Asia”. Hydroelectric power generation and dam construction are considered major growth industries for Bhutan, Nepal and India, as their governments seek to meet the massive power and water demands from neighboring, densely populated lowland of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Pandit and Grumbine (2012) projected the effects of 292 existing or proposed dams on terrestrial ecosystems under different scenarios of land-cover loss. They concluded that dams affect almost 90% of India’s Himalayan valleys with the greatest impact occurring in areas of dense forests (i.e. a habitat type not utilized by snow leopards). Smaller hydroelectric plants have been constructed (e.g. Spiti Valley, Kinnaur in India) in higher areas with snow leopard habitat. The potential for constructing large dams within core habitat areas is unclear, although the presence of deep, mountain gorges appears to offer numerous potential dam sites, some with an apparently massive water-pool storage capacity. For example, a suggested site on the Yarlung Tsangpo River of China along the border with India has the reputed potential to be three times the size of the Three Gorges dam, currently the largest such structure in the world. If constructed, it would draw from the headwaters of the Brahmaputra, one of India’s most important waterways, and according to some reports, direct water towards China’s Yellow River.
8.4. Railroads and highways
Transport links are being extended and developed throughout Asia. In China, in particular, paved highways (including high-speed two-lane freeways) have been constructed through previously remote landscapes to link distant population centers. Even in rugged mountain areas of, roads are being constructed to service previously isolated settlements in an effort to develop their marginal economy and provide a better life for the rural population. However such roads may present an indirect threat by opening up remote areas to poachers. Where railroads are fenced, they may represent significant barriers to the free movement of wildlife. The Golmud-Lhasa railroad, completed in 2006, bisects the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, but those sections subject to risk of permafrost melting have been elevated, thus allowing for the passage by plains ungulates.
Fences along international borders – which often follow mountain ridgelines – present another barrier to wildlife movement, especially prey species. Short stretches of border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan have been fenced, as well as most of the border between Tajikistan and China in the Pamir, although fence posts have been cut for firewood along the southern 50 km, so animals can cross (Schaller and Kang 2008). Border fences also exist along. A barbed wire border fence between the Russian Federation and Mongolia, built in the year 2000 runs for about 50 km along the Mongun-Taiga. China’s Grassland Privatization Policy and other policies encourage fencing of formerly open rangelands. These too can impede animal movements, but so far these fences are confined to the plains and have not yet encroached on snow leopard habitat.
8.7. Other developments
Tourist and recreational facilities are also becoming more prevalent in the mountains. For example, the recent proposal to establish a ski resort in Ile-Alatau National Park in Kazakhstan within habitat known to be used by snow leopards.
8.8. Mitigating impacts of large-scale development projects
The three basic steps involved consist of identifying critical sites for snow leopard and prey populations; conducting credible environmental impact assessments; and taking specific actions to avoid, minimize or mitigate any environmentally damaging effects.
An Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is a statutory requirement at the planning stage of major developments in most snow leopard range countries, but these are not always carried out rigorously or transparently. Ensuring that ESIA’s are conducted according to the highest professional and international standards is an important step in minimizing adverse effects on snow leopards, their prey and habitat, as well as other critical elements of biodiversity. Where finance for development projects is provided by major multilateral donors or lenders, such as the World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) or the Asian Development Bank (ADB), adherence to the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standard 6 covering biodiversity is required and provides a further safeguard. SLN and its members collectively possess technical expertise for assisting governments, companies and local communities assess the impacts of large-scale projects – in order to identify detrimental impacts and develop reasonable mitigation measures based on careful environmental and economic planning as summarized below. Large-scale infrastructural development projects represent both a challenge and an opportunity for better ensuring the long-term conservation of biodiversity, including the potential for win-win outputs. For example, Quintero and Mathur (2011)suggested opportunities for such collaboration, while the Global Tiger Initiative produced a “Smart-Green Infrastructure” handbook for ameliorating direct and indirect impacts to tigers, many of which also apply to snow leopards (Quintero et al. 2011).
Biodiversity offsets may provide another mechanism for maintaining or enhancing environmental values in situations where development is sought despite detrimental environmental impacts. An emerging approach seeks to ensure that unavoidable negative environmental impacts of development are balanced by environmental gains, with the overall (and ideal) aim of achieving a net neutral or positive outcome (Kieseker et al. 2009, Heiner et al. 2011).
8.9. No Net Loss policy
Businesses, governments, and financial institutions are increasingly adopting a policy of no net loss of biodiversity for development activities. This goal is intended to help relieve tension between conservation and development by enabling economic gains to be achieved without concomitant biodiversity losses. Biodiversity offsets represent a necessary component of a much broader mitigation strategy for achieving no net loss following prior application of avoidance, minimization, and remediation measures. However, defining suitable offsets and the associated conditions under which the array of species, habitat and ecosystems can be ensured is not straight forward: they need to be comparable in type and amount, additional in terms of enrichment and offer lasting gains. Gardner et al. (2013) describe a framework designed to strengthen the potential for offsets to provide an ecologically defensible mechanism that can help reconcile conservation and development.
For example, while Mongolia’s rich oil and mineral deposits are attracting developers and fueling the country’s burgeoning economy, they could also irreparably harm Mongolia’s unparalleled temperate grasslands and arid ecosystems. To address this, The Nature Conservancy is working with the Mongolian government under its Development by Design approach to find a model that gives equal weight to the needs of conservationists, herders and developers through a mapping biodiversity values in order to identify potential areas where impacts could be offset for minimal mean loss to the country’s overall biodiversity portfolio. Initial signs are promising with sustainable outcomes being possible in places previously lacking sophisticated environmental information generated through remote sensing and GIS tools, and validated by ground-truthing.
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