Chapter 13 Snow Leopard Conservation through Hunting of Prey Species

13.1. Introduction

A key threat to the survival of snow leopard involves widespread declines in the availability of its main prey species, including reductions in their range extent. Thus the conservation of the prey species is of utmost relevance to snow leopard conservation. The primary large prey species like Asiatic ibex, blue sheep, argali, markhor, and urial are threatened by poaching or unsustainable hunting, forage competition due to an increasing livestock population, habitat degradation and in some cases, by transmission of infectious diseases from livestock (McCarthy and Chapron 2003; Mishra et al. 2004; Ostrowski et al. 2012; Berger et al. 2013).

PAs, where hunting is prohibited, cover only a small part of the range of the snow leopard; those without livestock grazing are even smaller. The establishment of new large-scale strict PAs (no-take zones) which would provide effective protection for the ungulate species and their habitats is becoming increasingly difficult and in most cases meets strong political resistance. Many PAs with formally regulated land-use rarely restrict livestock grazing effectively. In both, strict PAs as well as regulated use areas, the enforcement of rules is weakened by the lack of financial and human resources and/or insufficient political support. With growing human and livestock populations, even existing strict PAs are increasingly challenged by pressures to convert these areas into other forms of land-use.

Total or partial hunting bans have been enacted in some snow leopard range states including Bhutan, India and more recently, China. In other range states ungulates not listed in the Red Data Book (in particular Asiatic ibex) may be hunted based on quotas determined by the state agencies in charge. Elsewhere, species classified as endangered, such as argali and markhor, are also legally hunted within the framework of strict quotas. Enforcement of hunting bans or hunting limitations is often difficult for the same reasons as the enforcement of PA regulations. In some areas, especially in remote border zones, the problem is exacerbated by the involvement of military, border guards and police in poaching activities. Thus, hunting bans do not necessarily protect local ungulate populations from serious decline and extinction.

For example, in the Wakhan valley in south-east Tajikistan the local urial population was extirpated by poachers around 2005 despite the species being legally protected at least since 1988. The ibex populations declined significantly though very few hunting permits were being issued annually. In contrast, argali numbers in the Tajik Pamirs have remained high, despite, or because of commercial trophy hunting (Schaller 2005; Michel and Muratov 2010). Similarly, in the Afghan part of the Wakhan valley, traditional systems of hunting regulations seem to have survived until recently. In each village a few designated hunters took a limited number of ungulates from defined areas based on self-imposed restrictions. In 2011, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recorded more than 400 urial and 2000 ibex in such traditionally regulated areas (Moheb et al. 2012). This dichotomy suggests that outright bans on hunting may not always produce the desired effect, and conversely, that well managed hunting can have a positive influence on ungulate numbers.

Given the considerations outlined above, combined with the large home ranges of individual snow leopards, an approach for the conservation of snow leopards that relies only on strengthening PA systems and enforcing hunting bans of the prey species has obvious limitations. Snow leopard conservation therefore must look beyond PA boundaries. In certain sites where it is culturally acceptable and where ungulate populations have been scientifically determined to be able to support some level of harvest, consideration is warranted, on a site specific basis, for developing well-regulated, sustainable prey hunting programs which may contribute to the conservation of mountain ungulates and indirectly to that of the snow leopard. Sustainable use approaches are widely recognized internationally as conservation tools (Hutton and Leader-Williams 2003).

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has developed several statements of principles relevant for the management of hunting. Most importantly, the 7th Conference of Parties to the CBD (Kuala Lumpur, February 2004) adopted the Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (AAPG). The AAPG are based on the assumption that it is possible to use biodiversity in a manner in which ecological processes, species, and genetic variability remain above the thresholds needed for long term viability, and that all resource managers and users have the responsibility to ensure that such use does not exceed these limits (http://www.cbd.int/sustainable/addis.shtml).

IUCN’s “Policy Statement on Sustainable Use of Wild Living Resources”, adopted as Resolution 2.29 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Amman in October 2000, affirms that use of wildlife, if sustainable, can be consistent with and contribute to biodiversity conservation. IUCN recognizes that where an economic value can be attached to a wild living resource, perverse incentives removed, and costs and benefits internalized, favorable conditions can be created for investment in the conservation and the sustainable use of the resource, thus reducing the risk of resource degradation, depletion, and habitat conversion (http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/species/publications/iucn_guidelines_and__policy__statements/)

Further, the IUCN SSC Caprinae Specialist Group adopted a formal position statement in December, 2000, recognizing that hunting, and in particular trophy hunting, can form a major component in conservation programs for wild sheep and goats. This statement noted that “Trophy hunting usually generates substantial funds that could be used for conservation activities such as habitat protection, population monitoring, law enforcement, research, or management programs. Equally importantly, the revenues from trophy hunting can provide a strong incentive for conservation or habitat protection” http://pages.usherbrooke.ca/mfesta/thunt.htm).

In 2012, the IUCN Species Survival Commission published the IUCN SSC Guiding Principles on Trophy Hunting as a tool for creating conservation incentives. In particular for trophy hunting these guiding principles are of relevance for the ungulate prey species of the snow leopard. This document explicitly states that although a wide variety of species (many of which are both common and secure) are hunted for trophies; some species that are rare or threatened may be included in trophy hunting as part of site-specific conservation strategies (IUCN SSC 2012). Examples include markhor in Pakistan, which is a snow leopard prey species, listed on Appendix I of CITES: https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_ssc_guiding_principles_on_trophy_hunting_ver1_09aug2012.pdf).

13.2. Trophy hunting in Snow Leopard range – current status and benefits

Wild ungulates share landscapes with people, and may compete with other forms of economically productive land uses upon which people’s livelihoods depend: they may thus be perceived negatively when damaging crops, competing with livestock for forage, or transmitting infectious diseases to livestock. Trophy hunting is one of the ways of making the ungulates more valuable than, and/or complementary to, other forms of land use (Rosen 2012).

Trophy hunts are usually conducted by hunters ready to pay substantial amounts of money for the opportunity. Trophy hunting generally involves taking small numbers of individual animals and requires relatively limited infrastructure, and is thus high in value but low in impact if properly managed. Trophy hunting on mountain ungulates can return benefits to local people (preferably through effective involvement in their management or through benefit sharing schemes supporting local communities as well as through income opportunities), encouraging their support for wildlife, and motivating investment at the community, private, and government level for research, monitoring, habitat protection, and enforcement against illegal use. Trophy hunting, if well managed, is often a higher value, lower impact land use than existing alternatives such as agriculture.

Trophy hunting takes place in several range states: on Asiatic ibex in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; on argali in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; on markhor, blue sheep and urial (on the latter only outside snow leopard range) in Pakistan; on Himalayan tahr and blue sheep in Nepal. Some species are excluded from trophy hunting in countries where such activity is generally allowed (e.g. until 2013 markhor in Tajikistan, argali in Russia and Kazakhstan). In Afghanistan, Bhutan, China and India no trophy hunting is permitted. China stopped issuing trophy hunting permits in 2006.

Impacts of trophy hunting on the populations of the target species and indirectly on snow leopard are heavily contended. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, some conservation organizations see trophy hunting on the prey species as a major threat for the snow leopard, while the state agency in charge of hunting management, scientists from the National Academy of Sciences and other stakeholders consider it an effective incentive for preventing poaching of prey species (at least in some areas), and thus indirectly benefiting the snow leopard (Davletbakov and Musaev 2012). In Tajikistan, trophy hunting has locally benefited argali, ibex and (in expectation of future hunting options) markhor protection (Michel et al. in press), while monitoring has indicated the presence of snow leopards in some hunting management areas in higher numbers than in areas without hunting management (Panthera, unpubl. data, Kachel 2014). From Pakistan, positive impacts of trophy hunting programs on numbers of ibex, markhor and urial have been reported (Johnson 1997; Shackleton 2001; Woodford et al. 2004; Frisina and Tareen 2009).

Poorly managed trophy hunting, however, may result in negative ecological impacts such as altered age/sex structures, social disruption, deleterious genetic effects, and in extreme cases, population declines. Where trophy hunting fails to involve local people, who are perhaps in the best position to support or to impede conservation, or when it does not provide substantial benefits to the local community, or when it fails to reinvest in species and habitat conservation, the conservation benefits may be lost. This type of trophy hunting may encourage poaching by those feeling alienated from using wildlife they perceive as their natural right to access. Thus, trophy hunting beyond the take of few trophy males can indirectly cause much higher mortality among populations of the ungulate species hunted.

13.3. Best practices

To avoid negative consequences, trophy hunting should be designed and implemented to maintain wild populations of indigenous species with adaptive gene pools and in natural ecosystems that are home to native biodiversity. This will require that:

  • Quotas be set conservatively (a significant number of old males should die by natural factors), thereby ensuring that the hunting off-take produces only minor alterations to naturally occurring demographic structure and that significant evolutionary impacts of selective hunts on large mature males as described by Coltman et al. (2003) are avoided. A quota of up to 1% of the population size recorded during the previous survey and of up to 20% of males of an estimated age of eight years or older are considered sustainable under most circumstances (Harris 1993; Wegge 1997).
  • Unethical hunting practices by guides and hunting concession owners (e.g., switching small trophies taken by a client for larger ones which may have been bought from poachers, or manipulation of trophies using spare horns to artificially increase horn length or repair broken horns) need to be prevented through self-control and regulation by the hunting sector and law enforcement. Because old males of maximum trophy size are the hunter’s primary target, trophy hunting of wild sheep and goats usually has little impact on the population size and reproduction of these polygamous species (Mysterud 2012; Frisina and Frisina 2012; Harris et al. 2013). Areas where offtake is excessive and trophy sized males are disproportionately taken, are likely to lose attractiveness for trophy hunters and reduce economic return to the hunting concession owner (Harris et al. 2013; pers. statements to Michel by hunting guides operating in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).
  • Trophy hunting should take place only in officially approved hunting management areas based on permits bound to the specific geographic area. These areas should be assigned to legal entities on a long-term basis to ensure an interest in the sustainability of the hunting opportunities over many years. When hunting permits are not area-bound or where hunting areas are assigned on a short term basis, there is increased likelihood of excessive, opportunistic harvesting of large trophy males without commensurate investment in conservation, monitoring and benefit sharing with local communities. The entities receiving the rights to such hunt areas should also have the capacity and interest to manage and invest in trophy hunting programs over the long-term.
  • Hunting management should not substantially manipulate or modify ecosystems or their natural components in ways that are incompatible with the objective of supporting the full range of native biodiversity. Relocation (with the exception of reintroduction in areas where a species went extinct), restocking and breeding of ungulates in enclosures, as well as the reduction of predators in the interest of increasing trophy animals are, therefore, not acceptable practices. Income from trophy hunting should support conservation of all wildlife and biodiversity, and not just high populations of the trophy hunting animals.
  • Revenue from hunting fees, especially where it is substantial, should be invested in the protection, monitoring and management of target ungulate populations and their habitats and also in the development and other incentives which benefit the local communities where the hunting is taking place. Where possible, community members and/or community-based organizations should be allowed to manage, or at a minimum assist in managing, hunting areas for the benefit of their communities. Private hunting concessions should employ local community members whenever possible, in particular traditional hunters, as well as investing in the prevention of poaching through outreach, community development and patrolling activities.

13.4. Subsistence and other forms of hunting

While the international trophy hunting market is limited, for more common and widely available species like Asiatic ibex, the supply of hunt opportunities can easily exceed demand and keep prices low. For species like markhor and argali some countries keep the quota low to retain a high price, which also limits the opportunities to develop trophy hunting on a much larger scale. Therefore in some cases other forms of hunting may be considered as an alternative or complementary option. Compared to trophy hunting, usually by foreign clients, hunting by local people does not provide very high economic returns, the primary benefit being meat for one’s family or a modest compensation by other villagers for meat.

The implementation of alternative forms of hunting management might be considered where trophy hunting would be hindered by factors such as the lack of access to international markets and legal restrictions. In such cases poaching can still be curtailed by putting sustainable hunting management practices into place. In some countries, residents, especially from the cities, are interested in having hunting opportunities in the countryside. This may provide an additional market: if targeted at the wealthy elite and where offering good services, substantial fee revenue for hunting agencies and incomes for local communities may be possible. Further, local people traditionally hunt for meat and a well-managed population of mountain ungulates can provide a higher sustainable annual harvest than an overhunted population. From the perspective of snow leopard conservation it is crucial that harvest rates are set that ensure adequate prey numbers remain to sustain populations of large predators. Thus, as a result of balanced hunting management, the population of the large prey should be greater.

Where other hunting is combined with trophy hunting only females older than one year should be hunted along with trophy males. In stable populations with natural predation, between 2% and 5% of all females >1 year old could be hunted. In populations not used for trophy hunting all sex and age classes may be hunted. In stable populations with natural population the annual quota should not exceed 5% of the total population with most harvested animals being males and young of both sexes. (Wegge 1997).

13.5. Impact of ungulate hunting on snow leopards

Trophy hunting programs on snow leopard prey – wild ungulates – must ensure conservation of not just the prey but also of the snow leopard. Ungulate trophy hunting programs in snow leopard habitat need to be managed from an ecosystem perspective, and must be designed to improve snow leopard conservation, conserve entire ecosystem function and diversity, rather than focus only on the specific species being hunted or harvested. It is also critical to assist the local communities and others involved to realize these broader objectives. This is necessary to avoid the kind of perverse incentives which accompanied past markhor trophy hunting in the Rondu valley in Baltistan, Pakistan (Jackson 2004). Concerns over snow leopard predation on markhor used to be paramount but it is no longer the case as people now seem to understand better the ecological role of snow leopards. Similar concerns were expressed in Tajikistan as the potential of trophy hunting on markhor became visible. As a result of the high economic value placed on the ungulate by trophy hunting, snow leopards are now perceived as a threat not only to village livestock, but more importantly, as a threat to the economic benefit from trophy hunting.

In fact, these concerns are rarely justified as in areas with healthy ungulate populations and with a conservatively set quota, most often there are enough large males for successful trophy hunts. Further, natural predation, which is less selective in terms of sex and age than trophy hunting, can help reduce the potential evolutionary impacts of selective trophy hunting (Harris et al. 2002). Natural predation by snow leopards and other carnivores fulfills important functions by helping keep populations of prey species healthy, reducing risks of fatal outbreaks of epidemic infectious diseases and contributing to the prevention of overuse of vegetation from excessive numbers of grazing or browsing herbivores. Local stakeholders should be educated and informed on the role of predators in maintaining or balancing ungulate populations.

In conclusion, snow leopard predation on wild ungulates is part of the natural order, and the economic benefit that accrues from ungulate conservation as a result of trophy hunting should be viewed as a reward for ecosystem conservation that ensures sufficient wild prey to sustain this endangered top predator as well. Wise conservation of predators, and in particular snow leopards, should become mandatory for all hunting management areas and as such, be duly embedded in the respective management agreements and instruments. Where non-extractive forms of nature tourism can also be implemented, the presence of snow leopards and wild ungulates offers additional incentives for local communities to accept snow leopards and other predators as an asset.

13.6. Some important research questions and priorities

Research focussing on the relations between snow leopard conservation and trophy hunt management might consider the following questions and priorities:

  • How quota setting can ensure that sufficient prey remains available for snow leopards and how predation by snow leopards needs to be taken into consideration while setting hunting quotas?
  • What interactions exist between snow leopards and other predators (wolf) in terms of their relative impact on prey populations?
  • Will an increase of natural prey lead to increases in snow leopard numbers, and in turn increase depredation on livestock, as suggested by Suryawanshi et al. (2012) or in a reduction in livestock depredation?
  • What is the potential of managing wild ungulates as an alternative or complementary land-use to livestock grazing? Can income from wild ungulates offset losses due to restrictions on livestock grazing in snow leopard habitats (trophy hunting and / or other hunting, reduced costs for wildlife management compared to maintenance of livestock, risk of losses under extreme weather conditions, adaptation capacity under climate change scenarios)?

13.7. Monitoring needs

The sustainable use of the snow leopard’s prey species through hunting requires targeted monitoring efforts:

  • Standard, cost-effective and efficient protocols for monitoring ungulate populations are required. The protocols used in consecutive surveys should allow for the comparison of the data over time. Wider applicability of recently developed double observer technique needs to be explored (Suryawanshi et al. 2012).
  • Monitoring of hunting effort and results, both quantitative (numbers harvested, kill per unit effort) and qualitative (trophy quality, age, size, hunter satisfaction), is necessary to detect changes in the hunted population and to adopt quota and other management interventions accordingly.
  • The monitoring of snow leopard presence and abundance in hunting management areas using established protocols (see Chapter 14 on Estimating snow leopard populations and monitoring trends) is necessary as it provides an indirect indicator for the monitoring of its prey species.
  • Monitoring methods and protocols should be transparent and consistent among range countries, and results shared freely.

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