Growing up in a herding community in the Nepalese mountains, Ghana S. Gurung knew two things about snow leopards. They killed his family’s livestock. And they needed to be killed in return.
Gurung spent his childhood summers herding goats, sheep and yaks with his grandfather. They were their main source of livelihood but they were also easy prey for snow leopards.
“During that time, snow leopards used to attack my goats, sheep and little yak killing seven, eight, and even ten in one go,”saysGurung. “It made me angry.”
For people like Gurung and a community that relied so heavily on their livestock, snow leopards were not beautiful creatures that needed protecting. They were a direct threat that had to be eliminated.
“I saw traps being laid out for them, poison being prepared and snow leopards being killed,”saysGurung.
It is the same story in many parts of the snow leopard’s habitat across Asia’s high mountains — herding communities killing snow leopards in retaliation for attacks on their livestock. This conflict is one of the main reasons for the 20 per cent decline in snow leopards over the past 20 years.
But now, as Senior Conservation Programme Director at WWF-Nepal, Gurung is doing everything he can to end this conflict — for the benefit of herding families and the survival of the snow leopard.
And his work is critical.
From his early years learning ancient texts in a cave, Gurung undertook an incredible journey to modern education, thanks to his father, who sold a goat every month to help meet part of his early school expenses. Eventually, he graduated from Lincoln University in New Zealand on a full scholarship.
For Gurung, the turning point was when he started working in conservation. It took the increasing rarity of actually seeing a snow leopard in the wild for him to realize how important it was to protect them.
About 20 years ago, when Gurung joined WWF, there were no snow leopard sightings recorded in Kangchenjunga, Nepal. This grim picture was painted across the other 12 range countries. As little as 17 per cent of snow leopard habitat had ever been studied and with fewer and fewer sightings, it was becoming increasingly evident that this beautiful big cat was edging closer to the brink of extinction.
However, after years of dedicated efforts by conservationists like Ghana S. Gurung, working closely with local communities and other partners, we are beginning to see a change in attitudes towards snow leopards. With the support of governments and snow leopard champions worldwide, snow leopards now have the chance of a brighter future.
“Protecting snow leopards in their mountain ecosystems will no-doubt have knock-on benefits such as securing critical freshwater sources surrounding many of the snow leopard habitats.”
Gurung has seen great success in tackling human-wildlife conflict that is decimating snow leopard populations across range states through several initiatives, championed by WWF and its partners, and integrated with government policies. One of these is the introduction of insurance schemes that provide compensation to communities to help them cope with losses inflicted by snow leopards.
Emerging and innovative technology such as camera traps and GPS collars, are also allowing conservationists to learn more about these big cats by studying their movements and their prey.
Yalung was the fourth snow leopard collared in Kangchenjunga Conservation Area on 8 May 2017.
But the work is far from over.
Due to their elusive nature and remote habitat, there is still much to learn about the ‘ghosts of the mountains.’
It is estimated that as few as 4,000 of these critically endangered snow leopard now survive in the wild. A recent WWF and TRAFFIC report says that on average one is still being killed every day. Human-snow leopard conflict remains a major threat to the survival of the species, exacerbated by climate change and unsustainable development as cities expand.
The species is also a victim of growing global illegal wildlife trade, with demand for rare and cherished wildlife products still rife. It is the fourth largest trade crime in the world and is often spearheaded by highly organized criminal syndicates, threatening the survival of many animals such as elephants, rhinos, and tigers.
In 2013, the governments of 12 range countries agreed on the Bishkek Declaration 2013, to identify and secure at least 20 snow leopard landscapes across the big cat’s range by 2020 through the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP). The goal is critical to secure a future for snow leopards.
But despite this promising step by governments, conservationists, and supporters around the world there is still a monumental task ahead.
As the governments of snow leopard range countries met in Bishkek again this August, Gurung and others urged governments to take greater action to ensure the promise of protecting 20 landscapes by 2020.
“In nature, everything is connected. We’re not only fighting to save the snow leopard, we’re also battling to protect everything that their survival represents and their homes hold.” Ghana S. Gurung