The study published in Oryx–The International Journal of Conservation indicates that increasing livestock numbers to supply the global market of cashmere have a negative impact on snow leopard’s wild prey, the Siberian ibex, and could undermine the long-term viability of the snow leopard itself. Scientists used camera traps to detect presence of wild mammals in a National Park in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains, however against 500 sequences of wild mammals, camera traps detected 1,000 sequences of livestock herds (mainly cashmere goats). Findings confirm the high vulnerability of the snow leopard and provide relevant information to promote its conservation.

Among the large cats, the snow leopard is one of the rarest and most charismatic. Found only in the remote mountains of central Asia, from Nepal to Siberia, it is estimated that only a few thousand animals are left and that the species has declined in the last 20 years. Threats include ever-increasing livestock numbers to produce cashmere wool, and in areas such as Mongolia, which holds 40 million livestock, the numbers of livestock have reached unsustainable levels. Studies on the impact of livestock are particularly scant and the elusive nature of the snow leopard, combined with its harsh habitat, makes the species particularly difficult to study. Research now published in Oryx contributes to filling this knowledge gap.

“We analysed the data from nearly 50 camera traps we set in 2015 in a National Park in the Altai Mountains to understand how livestock influence the presence of the snow leopard and its wild prey, the Siberian ibex,” explains Francesco Rovero. “Results show that where livestock occur the presence of ibex decreases. We also found that snow leopard presence does not appear to vary with presence or absence of livestock, nor does it vary with presence of ibex. This is an unexpected result that could indicate that snow leopards compensate for the decrease in wild prey by preying on livestock, potentially risking retaliatory killings and increasing conflicts with local shepherds.”

Mongolia is one of the largest producers of cashmere wool, and the study confirms that large livestock numbers may lead to a decline of wild ungulates, as well as overall habitat degradation. These processes could eventually undermine the long-term viability of the snow leopard. Scientists caution that the rarity of both snow leopards and ibex in the study area is such that further studies over larger areas and yielding larger sample sizes will be required to assess the generality of their findings. Nevertheless, this newly published research represents a valuable contribution towards understanding the co-existence of the snow leopard, and its wild prey, with livestock.

MUSE’s research programme in Mongolia is conducted in collaboration with the Mongolian NGO Green Initiative and other international partners including the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the University of Lausanne. The 2015 expedition has been documented in an award-winning film entitled “Ghost of the Mountains”, co-produced by MUSE and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Research on the snow leopard in the Altai Mountains continues with a second phase conducted in 2017 and a third planned for 2018/2019.

The Snow Leopard project:

Watch the documentary “Ghost of the Mountains”:

Photo credits: Francesco Rovero

The paper, “Co-occurrence of snow leopard Panthera uncia, Siberian ibex Capra sibirica and livestock: potential relationships and effects”  was published on March 4 and is available to download for free until March 25 in the journal Oryx.

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