The endangered snow leopard has a new and unusual ally in its fight to survive on planet Earth — Tibetan-Buddhist monks.
Tucked away in the remote and perilously high mountain reaches of the Sanjiangyuan region of China, four Tibetan monasteries have agreed to work cooperatively with conservationists from the nonprofit Panthera, local NGO Shan Shui and the Snow Leopard Trust to help save the snow leopard.
Only 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards are left in the wild. They are listed as “endangered” by the IUCN List of Threatened Species. Unlike other big cats, snow leopards cannot roar. For this reason, in addition to their reclusive nature, they are known as “mountain ghosts.”
Snow leopards live primarily in steep, ruggedly mountainous areas of Central Asia at altitudes between 9,800 and 17,000 feet. In these remote and lonely places, craggy cliffs and dangerous ravines help them hunt the wild goats and sheep they depend on to survive. Snow leopards can be found in only twelve countries, including India, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China, however, represents about 60 percent of their remaining range.
Fortunately, the same qualities that make such far-flung and dangerous terrain attractive to snow leopards also appeal to Buddhist monks. Realizing this, in 2009, Panthera initiated cooperative programs with four monasteries in China, partnering with them to better protect the snow leopard.
The monks undergo a training program and then systematically patrol the area surrounding their monasteries. They use cameras, binoculars and GPS systems provided by Panthera to observe, monitor and record the wildlife they see, including the snow leopard.
Monks also work as field assistants, doing everything from changing camera batteries to collecting feces samples. According to Dr. Li Juan of Peking University and the Snow Leopard Trust, the monks are especially interested in the photographs Panthera collects using camera traps. They love to get copies, which they eagerly share with their communities.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the monks demonstrate their value to this program when a snow leopard preys on a local herdsman’s livestock.
“When a snow leopard kills a sheep, goat, yak or even a young camel, it is a huge economic loss to the herder. It is hard to blame them for wanting to kill the snow leopard in retaliation,” Dr. Tom McCarthy, head of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program, told Mongabay.com.
The Buddhist monks are sometimes the only voice the angry locals will heed, so their active involvement in defusing these situations can be critically important. Monks have even been known to pay a herdsman for his loss from their own meager pockets just to keep the leopards safe.
In addition to retaliatory killings, the other primary threats to the snow leopard’s survival are loss of its natural prey, such as ibex and blue sheep, due to overhunting and poaching of the leopard for its pelt and bones.
The partnership with the four monasteries has been surprisingly effective, according to Dr. Li Juan. “As a strategy, monastery-based snow leopard conservation could be extended to other Tibetan Buddhist regions, covering about 80 percent of global snow leopard range,” she said.
Most surprising of all, it appears to Dr. Li Juan that “more snow leopard habitats in the Sanjiangyuan area could be directly protected by monasteries than the core areas of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve.”
In the battle to protect endangered leopards, sometimes the best warrior is a Buddhist monk.
Photo credit: Raikthorstad / Pixabay