Protecting snow leopards through community’s help

12 Jan 2020

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—File Photo
—File Photo

Sustainable land and forest management in critical habitats in Chitral is of utmost importance to ensure survival and conservation of the snow leopard and its prey species.

In order to achieve this objective and secure ecosystem of the wild cat with the help of local communities, Pakistan Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (PSLEP) has been launched last year with the assistance of Global Environment Facility (GEF) Trust Fund.

Chitral is known as one of the famous habitats of the iconic snow leopard and this can be gauged from the fact that an American zoologist filmed the animal for the first time in Chitral Gol National Park four decades ago. The historic facts showed a close link between humans and the wild cat. The interventions and efforts in past did create awareness among the people of Chitral to recognise the value and importance of the iconic animal, but its population still faces threats.

The question, however, remains as how to tackle the high dependence of local communities on natural resources and emerging threats of illegal wildlife trade and wildlife crimes. It was felt that snow leopards could only be protected with the help and motivation of the communities that shared their space. With this aim in view, PSLEP has been launched last year.

The folk tales and songs in Chitral are replete with the description of the wild cat, while the people name their children after it as Purdoom (snow leopard) even these days, showing the intimate relation between the two. Before arrival of automatic rifles in the area, the villagers would ward off the cat with clubs when it attacked the herd of goats in the pasture and even in villages. The modern assault rifles, however, subdued the cat leading to rapid depletion of its population over the past many decades and it filled the conservationists with high degree of apprehension about its very survival. The cat was, in the meanwhile, put on the list of ‘endangered species heading towards extinction’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The area now forming the Chitral Gol National Park is said to be one of the famous habitats of the wild cat since the old times and a pair of the animal with cubs made their presence felt by descending to the lower altitude in the vicinity of villages flanking the pastures. The other places of its presence were Gahirait Gol, Broze Gol, Koghuzi, Kuju, Agram Gol, Shasha and Kalash valley of Rumbur, which also supported a large population of markhor and ibex. The latter is considered to be the favourite food of the wild cat.

An orientation programme on ‘the role of media in snow leopard and ecosystem conservation’ was held in Chitral the other day in which the role and responsibility of media was highlighted. The event was specially attended by known conservationist Ashiq Ahmed Khan, while Jaffaruddin and Moiz Rafi of Snow Leopard Foundation were also among the speakers.

Mr Jaffaruddin said that the objective of session was to share information about the project with media and seek its role in changing perception about wildlife and other relevant resources.

The speakers, including regional programme manager Shafiqullah Khan, said that the loss of habitat and prey, retaliatory killing to save livestock, poaching and climate change were the major threats leading to drop in population of the wild cat. They said that interventions of the project included adopting landscape level approach, protected area expansion, participatory conservation in snow leopard model landscapes through sustainable community development and support for international cooperation and conservation and management actions backed by knowledge, awareness and monitoring and evaluation.

About projected outcomes of the project, they said that the target area of the project covered critical snow leopard habitats across Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir and Hindukush mountain ranges of northern Pakistan where three ‘model’ snow leopard landscapes would be established.

“At least 1.5 million hectares of critical snow leopard landscapes will be effectively managed under integrated participatory management landscape approaches, 4,000 households will directly benefit through resource management approaches and sustainable landscape approaches will be institutionalised through the national legislative, policy and institutional arrangements in the three provinces,” they said.

The speakers said that Pakistan was among the 12 countries in the world which supported the population of snow leopard and Chitral was known for being the major habitat of the wild cat and it was here that an eminent American zoologist succeeded in 1980s to take a photograph of the animal from a close range for the first time which brought this region into limelight.

They said that legal protection had been provided to snow leopard while the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa included it in the third schedule of Wildlife Act 1975 by giving it the status of protected animal. Due to its status as protected animal, its hunting is illegal and its possession, dead or alive, or of its body parts or trade thereof is also illegal.

However, no law, whatever stringent it may be, can stop the people from committing offensive acts against the wildlife in the absence of community participation which needed proper education accompanied with rich incentives.

The conservationists stated that the presence of snow leopard in an area showed an ideal situation of the ecological environment and as such safe population of the cat in Chitral was indicative of healthy situation where biodiversity could flourish.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2020