Snow Leopards Need To Be Protected ... But How?

One conservationist has a radical new plan—treating the rare cat as a "domesticated" animal.

A snow leopard in Pakistan's Chitral region.

The snow leopard in Pakistan is an endangered species. The population of the rarely seen big cat has likely fallen to fewer than 450 in the country, mainly due to hunting. Now an expert has come up with an unconventional—and controversial—proposal to save the snow leopard: Classify it as a domesticated animal.

That doesn't mean that snow leopards are literally tame, like a chicken, explained Shafqat Hussain, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who spoke during the National Geographic Explorers Symposium in Washington, D.C., in June: "When I say that snow leopards are like domestic cats, I mean it rhetorically to make contrast with the word wild." (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

His idea stems from the changing relationship between snow leopards and humans. Where the cats do remain in the Himalaya, they increasingly share their habitat with mountain herders. A 2010 study of snow leopard scat found that up to 70 percent of the species' diet in the Gilgit Baltistan Province (map) comes from sheep, cattle, and other domestic animals. Some herders have killed snow leopards in retaliation for preying on their livestock. (See pictures and video of snow leopards in Afghanistan.)

Given the snow leopards' diet, "how do we see these mythical, elusive wild animals? Are they really wild in the sense that of meaning we attach to the word wild—existing on its own, having no connection with society and domestic economy?" Hussain said.

"Clearly not."

Supporting Locals

So the way to enable snow leopards to survive, says Hussain, is not to create protected areas that sequester them from local communities. That solution often alienates farmers, who lose their grazing areas as a result. He would suggest supporting local herders instead so they can make a living despite snow leopard incursions. (See snow leopard pictures in National Geographic magazine.)

And that's exactly what he's been doing for more than a decade. In 1999 Hussain founded the Snow Leopard Project, an insurance scheme that compensates local people in snow leopard-range countries if their livestock are killed by the predators.

Various branches of the successful project, which is jointly managed by project officials and a committee of villagers, have spread to 400 households covering 3,000 animals across central Asia.

Since 1998, close to U.S. $7,000 has been paid out in compensation for lost animals, and $13,000 invested on improving livestock corrals and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, the snow leopard population seems to have remained stable, if not grown, Hussain said.

Snow Leopard Perspective Controversial

Not everyone agrees. In fact, there is great consternation in the big-cat conservation community about Hussain's ideas, particularly that conservation groups don't work with locals. (Learn about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)

Tom McCarthy, executive director of the Snow Leopard Program for the big-cat conservation group Panthera, said that he doesn't "know a single conservation [nongovernmental organization] working on snow leopards today that would support setting up reserves for the cats at the expense of local people."

For example, before Hussain set up the Snow Leopard Project, McCarthy and colleagues founded the award-winning Snow Leopard Enterprises, which helps local people in snow leopard countries generate income.

Conservation biologist and snow leopard expert Jerry Roe also said by email that relabeling the snow leopard as domestic will not resolve the conflict between snow leopards and herders or benefit the species.

For one, "a change of definition will not alter the perspective of snow leopards as a pest species in the eyes of herders," said Roe, co-founder of California-based Nomad Ecology, an ecological consulting and research company.

Living With Snow Leopards

Hussain thinks the objections are just not valid. Local people—at least in Pakistan—do not have an "atavistic enmity to snow leopards, [nor] this itch to kill it," he said. "If they get compensated for their losses, they have no interest in eliminating this animal."

Such is the case with Mohammed Ibrahim, chairman of Skoyo Krabathang Basingo Conservation and Development Organization in Krabathang, Pakistan (map), who also owns 15 goats. In a phone interview with an Urdu interpreter, Ibrahim said that he's not worried about snow leopards, mostly because of insurance schemes such as Project Snow Leopard that compensate herders for lost animals.

And since snow leopards have never been known to attack people, Hussain is confident that his scheme would work far better than a conservation policy that separates the leopards from the locals: "The idea of co-existing with snow leopards is easy to implement if you satisfy the villagers."

Ultimately, conservationists share the same goal: Ensuring that the snow leopard—what Hussain calls a "symbol of the high mountains"—can survive. Whether that will continue to be an animal dependent on people for food, though, is still up in the air.