National Geographic News
A snow leopard perched on rocks in Pakistan.

A snow leopard in Pakistan's Chitral region.

Photograph by George B. Schaller, National Geographic

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published October 9, 2012

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.

22 comments
Jade Sahinidis
Jade Sahinidis

I agree, humans should take responsibility for their actions on the world.

Carl Lee
Carl Lee

why they are killed by human , humans are animals too , we also live on the earth . we also breath the fresh air , drink the fresh water . we are equal in the world. the thing that some people did don't mean humans are evolution , but degenerate !!

Balwinder Singh
Balwinder Singh

It is a rare Breed and must be saved and helped to increase their Population

Marco Luo
Marco Luo

majestic animals just like me

Deon van Zyl
Deon van Zyl

Examine the conservation policies of Namibia. The local community must have an interest in protecting the animals. Same problem solved on a larger scale.

Deon van Zyl
Deon van Zyl

Examine the solutions implemented in Namibia. The local community must benefit in some way by protecting the animals.

Tina Rile
Tina Rile

I am heartened by the insurance program that can reimburse farmers and herdsman for any losses incurred by snow leopards.  It seems a ingenious incentive to bridge the divide, internationally and I wonder if a similar scheme can be installed here in the US in re to Pumas and Wolves impacting cattle and sheep herds.


As for my own outside domestic cats...I would never forbid or impair their natural instincts to hunt birds.  I love the local birds in my yard but if one falls to my cats...that is simply natures way.


This whole concept of sharing the planet WITH ALL LIFE should be automatic for human beings.  Our species does not get to take every resource and creature and abuse all others.  Mothers teach this to your children first and foremost!!

Astrid G.
Astrid G.

A cat will always remain a cat, be it wild in nature or tamed as a companion at home. Taking into account the present state of wild life, I feel that humanity has the responsibility to provide adequate living conditions for wild and tame animals without any differences. Arbitrary redifitions or "corrections" of their natural living environment andindispensable needs are an aberration to life itself. This goes for all endangered species as well as for domestic animals. For instance, removing a cat's claws to "protect" the curtains is not acceptable. Such a person should not own a cat at all.

Astrid Gerecke

Valerie Huey
Valerie Huey

Great idea, and no one loses.... the cats live and the herders are compensated. But why not invest in making sure there is an abundance of natural prey for these cats so they don't have the need to prey on the locals livestock. Research the areas to find out why the snow leopard's wild prey is depleted to the point where the cat is focused on domestic prey for it's food source.

casey r.
casey r.

This is a great animal. There is a lot of info about the cat. I had to do a project for an endangered animal and I picked the snow Leopard and i found it fascinating to do.

THOMAS BOYAJIAN
THOMAS BOYAJIAN

MY FAVORITE CAT!!! ABSOLUTELY AWSOME

MY FAVORITE CAT!!! GORGEOUS COAT OF FUR!!! SAVE THE SNOW LEAPORD???

Ali Khan
Ali Khan

“If we kill off the wild, then we are killing a part of our souls.” 

Keep up the good work !

carl holland
carl holland

it is  good  to  see     thayr  tring  to  improve      the  cats  life  and  somewhat range       

Joel Edwards
Joel Edwards

An effort has to be made not only to insure safety to humans around.  But if we work on repopulating the prey available to snow leopards in the wild country, then less of them will be coming to communities where herders graze.

Introduce more food for the leopards to eat, outside on the mountains!

Melissa Burton
Melissa Burton

@Tina Rile California has outlawed killing of mountain lions, and they are everywhere, including the suburbs. California is a very diverse place and I think the "live and let live you do your thing over there and I'll do my thing over here" mentality of most who live here is why we have a truce. The lions generally go out of their way to avoid harming people and people generally go out of their way to avoid harming lions.

Re livestock: It is common for sheep herders use Great Pyrenees dogs to protect their herds. 

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