Endangered Snow Leopards Get a Helping Hand from an Unlikely Place

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.


Related Stories:

Cooperation is Saving Mongolia’s Snow Leopards

How Protecting Snow Leopards Can Alleviate Poverty in Central Asia

Why Snow Leopards Need Help


Photo credit: Raikthorstad / Pixabay

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Kathy G.
Kathy G.2 years ago


Marilyn M.
Marilyn M.2 years ago

Great news. Thank you for posting.

Sheri D.
Sheri D.2 years ago

Thank you for this article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Waheeda S.
Waheeda S.2 years ago

I have always believed that cooperation is the key to conservation. Thank you to the monks for their assistance.

Ann Razumovskaya
Ann Razumovskaya2 years ago

May be it will help... Let's hope.

Nickihermes Celine
Past Member 2 years ago

thank you to the monks for saving th

thank you to the monks for saving these beautiful little leopards,27/6

Brigitte Nouari
Brigitte Nouari2 years ago

Thank you for the information. Snow leopards found strong allies. Congratulations to these organizations working to protect them and have managed to convince the Buddhist monks to help save this amazing animal. Also thank you to those monks who apparently took up the cause of the snow leopard. I translated the most text in French for Love Animalia Naturalis Environnementalis. http://www.lane-forumactif.com/t2923-urgent-sauver-le-leopard-de-l-amour

Fi T.
Fi T.2 years ago

Offer help as we can

Anne F.
Anne F.2 years ago

Wonderful to see people working to protect the big cats.