Chapter 12 Ecosystem Services and Economic Valuation of Snow Leopards and their Mountain Ecosystem

12.1. Introduction

Mountains and other high elevation areas occupied by snow leopards provide direct and indirect benefits to people that depend on healthy and functioning ecosystems. These can be categorized as: provisioning services (food, fibre, and water), regulatory services (climate regulation, water regulation, soil preservation), cultural services (cultural diversity, spiritual and religious values), and supporting services (soil production, soil retention, oxygen production) (MEA 2005).

12.2. Hydrological services

The snow leopard’s high mountain habitat acts a gigantic water storage tower on which hundreds of millions of people living downstream in South, Central, and East Asia depend for drinking, irrigation and industry. For instance, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is the origin of six of the major rivers of Asia: the Hwang He, Yangtze, Mekong that are estimated to impact 40% of the world’s population (Foggin, 2008) and the Indus, Ganges and Tsangpo-Brahmaputra that support more than 1 billion people in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan (Thenkabail 2005). The Hindu-Kush range provides fresh water for more than 200 million people living in the region and about 1.3 billion people downstream (Rasul 2011). The Altai and Sayan mountains stretch across Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China, comprising the watershed between Central Asia and the Arctic Ocean (Kokorin 2001). Hydrological services support about 13 million people in Central Asia, over an area of 343,100 km², most notably in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya river basins. Land uses like grazing and road-building reduce infiltration of rainfall or snowmelt while increasing runoff rates (Braumann 2007). Dam construction for electricity and irrigation may also have unanticipated negative effects on watersheds and water cycle regimes at both local and regional levels (Pandit and Grumbine 2012).

12.3. Regulatory and support services

These services are vital to human existence but are often overlooked as they appear not to have a direct utilitarian value nor do they have an explicit market value. A study on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau estimated the economic value of non-degraded grassland for primary production (above ground biomass) at USD 308.9/ha, carbon sequestration was valued at USD 33.07x 104/ha, nitrogen sequestration at USD 64.58 x 104/ha and biodiversity maintenance at USD 400/ha (Wen 2013).

Surprisingly little is known about the regulatory and supporting service values provided by mountain habitats and thus studies are urgently needed to determine how different land-uses affect them. Although we have a reasonable understanding of prevailing land-uses in snow leopard habitat, we remain ignorant of other essential services for well-being offered by such habitats. In maximizing ecosystem provisioning services, humans tend to trade-off crucial regulatory and supporting services: it is thus important to understand which ecosystem or regulatory services are being compromised and the future effects on regional and global systems. There is an urgent need for undertaking ecosystem service assessments and for understanding the primary drivers of change within snow leopard habitat, nationally and regionally.

12.4. Agro-pastoralism

Pastoralism is the primary land use within snow leopard habitat. The Mongolian economy, for instance, is heavily dependent on this livelihood with some 8.19 million livestock grazed within snow leopard habitat (FAO, 2013), and in India, it numbers approximately 2.5 million (GOI, 2007). In Kyrgyzstan where more than half the country is potential snow leopard habitat, about 44% of the land area (around 89,000 km²) is used as pastures for livestock (Undeland, 2005). In 2005, an estimated 30 million sheep and goat and 12 million yaks were using the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, which embraces a significant proportion of China’s snow leopard habitat (Miller, 2005).

Due to harsh climatic conditions, especially extreme temperatures and a shortened growing season, high elevations and in some places the scarcity of water, very little crop production takes place in most snow leopard areas. The principal crops grown are barley, wheat, buckwheat and pea. Livestock production is almost completely dependent upon natural forage produced in rangelands, along with the water stored in glaciers and snowfields.

However, intensive livestock production often has a detrimental effect on other ecosystem services, causing land degradation and affecting nutrient resource cycles in several ways. As ruminants, livestock may affect nitrogen and carbon cycles (Steinfeld 2007). Overgrazing in alpine areas may result in soil and pasture degradation and the resultant decrease in their regenerative capacity, along with a reduction in vegetation production and biomass, lowered amination, nitrification (nitrogen fixation) and soil fertility (Steinfeld 2007). On the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, excessive livestock grazing is reported to have caused vegetation degradation and created barren soils over some 70,319 km² (Shang 2007). The economic loss up to 2008 due to overgrazing has been estimated at $2.44 billion for primary production, $84.85 billion for carbon emission, $69.39 billion for nitrogen loss and $2.02 billion for loss in plant diversity (Wen 2013). This economic valuation does not account for other ecosystem services such as the value of gross primary production (GPP), recreation values or the potential synergy of this high altitude ecosystem (Wen 2013).

12.5. Biodiversity values

The protection of biodiversity is another important ecosystem service. In India for example, snow leopard habitat covering an estimated 89,271 km² supports 350 documented species of mammals, 1,200 species of birds, 635 species of amphibians and reptiles (Anonymous 2011). The Altai mountain ranges of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China support 3,726 known species of vascular plants, 143 species of mammals, 77 fish species, and 425 bird species (Kokorin 2001; MEA 2005). The Tien Shan region represents a center of endemism for fruit trees and numerous other economically important plants. Overall, the snow leopard’s range covers 50 Ecoregions as designated under the WWF Biome and Ecoregion program.

12.6. Cultural values

Snow leopard habitats in South, Central and East Asia harbour immense cultural values and diversity. There are numerous important religious sites that attract people from all over the world who come to pay homage (for example, the sacred Kailas Mountain in the Tibet Autonomous Region, China and the national cultural sites of the Altai or Golden Mountains of Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan) or simply to view and enjoy mountain landscapes.

The large number of tourists visiting snow leopard habitat annually contributes to the local and national economy. In Kazakhstan, tourism revenues comprised 5.0% of the GDP in 2011 which amounted to 8.4 billion US dollars (Ruggles-Brise 2012). In 2012 tourism contributed 9.4% to Nepal’s GDP which totalled 1.68 billion USD (Turner 2013a). In Mongolia, tourism contributed to 5.7% of the country’s GDP, approximately 0.57 billion USD in 2012 (Turner 2013b). While an important source of revenue, tourism often places undue pressure on the environment and may thus compromise other ecosystem services. Snow leopard habitat is relatively fragile, so that added pressures from tourists and associated servicing can affect the environment negatively unless regulated and well managed. In areas of water shortages, tourism limits the availability of this essential resource to local residents.

12.7. Applying economic incentives toward the conservation of Snow Leopards and their habitats

The risk of carnivore extirpation is probably best minimized by enabling local people to benefit from carefully targeted incentives for sustained co-existence with snow leopards and other predators, and by capitalizing on opportunity costs and cultural values that underpin community-based conservation action(s).

Sustained investment in social capital is an important element to encourage effective, genuine and equitable resource management. This, in turn, may require financial and technical inputs from external agents who may also need to assume some of the cost of long-term monitoring. In effect, local people need to both receive and perceive tangible benefits from their willingness to co-exist amicably with snow leopards and other wildlife.

One strategic framework for fostering sustained co-existence entails positively valuing large predators by providing cash or in-kind rewards to communities demonstrating a sustained snow leopard population within their geographic area (Dinerstein et al. 2012). These financial instruments, termed “payments to encourage coexistence” (Dickman et al. 2011) appear to meet key criteria applied to Payments for Ecological Services or PES (Wunder 2005; Pagiola and Platais 2007; Ferraro 2011; Rasul et al. 2011). PES is a market-driven approach to conservation based on the twin principles that those who benefit from environmental services (e.g., downstream users of clean water) should pay for them, and those who generate such services (upstream watershed communities) should be compensated for providing them. Dinerstein et al. (2012) advocate the use of a Wildlife Premium Mechanism, whereby premiums are embedded in carbon payments, linked to a related carbon payment (but as independent and legally separate transactions) or otherwise provided to designated communities acting as agents for conserving targeted species, habitats and related ecosystem services.

Under conventional PES mechanisms, service providers receive regular payments conditional on their providing the desired environmental services (or adopting a practice considered necessary to supporting or generating those services). In the case of snow leopards, communities could be vested with authority to manage and protect snow leopards, prey and habitat according to prescribed protocols, with payments being linked to the verified persistence of a given number of snow leopards and large prey animals over time. Typically, participation in PES is voluntary, but requiring extensive community management because programs are designed to occur on lands where local people hold the title or contract to long-term lease user rights and responsibilities from the government. The monitoring, reporting and verification required to make premium payments credible to investors include transparent methods for collecting data on key indices by trained community members along with verification by an independent biologist or organization (see Chapter 14 Estimating Snow Leopard and Prey Populations and Monitoring Trends).

Incentives and performance payments for conservation are receiving increased attention from both conservation and development practitioners (Ferraro 2011). While the theory underlying PES is relatively simple, studies verifying the efficacy of PES are lacking. Nor is there information on the valuation of snow leopards or their alpine ecosystem. Reasons for this include poor beneficiary targeting and participation, unforeseen changes in land-use and failure of participants to comply with contractual obligations. Options for ecosystem services related to water provision appear limited unless linked with payments from hydro-power generation since water is considered an open-access commodity within snow leopard range.

Cost-effective targeting of land through the use of discriminative conservation payments can substantially improve the efficiency of investments in the Grain-to-Green program and other payment for ecosystem services programs (Chen et al. 2010). Dinerstein et al. (2013) offer examples for incentivizing local communities to protect wildlife through premium payment mechanisms such as REDD (carbon sequestration).

Accounting for economic benefits arising from conservation and reducing potential policy conflicts with alternative plans for development can provide opportunities for successful strategies that combine conservation and sustainable development and facilitate conservation action.

The PES approach may generate new financing which would not otherwise be available for conservation; it can be sustainable, as it depends upon mutual self-interest of service users and providers and not upon the whims of donor funding. It is judged efficient if it generates services whose benefits exceed the cost of providing them. Spatially-based cost-benefit analyses provide a basis for more equitable distribution of cost-sharing through management initiatives that offer herders incentives, as well as drawing upon traditional knowledge to create more sustainable rangeland management protocols (Ferraro 2011; Zabel and Rowe 2009). Rasul et al. (2011) suggest a framework for valuing ecosystem services in the Himalayan region.

Conservationists have debated how best to link ecosystem service payments to biodiversity conservation. Gibbons et al. (2011) suggest that PES payments should target actions where there is a clear intervention which clearly and directly benefits biodiversity and that is relatively easy to measure and monitor over time. In degraded habitats or where it is not clear what action or set of actions will produce the desired result, it may be preferable to incentivize activities for results (i.e. a given number of snow leopards and large prey animals). A Payment by Results system will allow individual managers to optimize their level of action, especially if they have special knowledge about the species or the habitat being protected and managed. However, a key consideration in determining which incentive system might work most effectively involves the costs of compliance and population monitoring, as well as the ability to robustly and reliably detect changes in number over time (a statistic which may be surprising difficult to determine). Further research is required to determine circumstances and policies under which direct payment schemes for restoring or maintaining intact ecosystems provide consistent results. These need to be species and site specific, and supported through reliable protocols such as camera-trapping and non-invasive scat genotyping, along with prey species and habitat condition surveys.


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