On snow leopard conservation

Authors: Zhaxi Sange, Yufang Gao; Translator: Riley Peng @Animal Dialogue

First published on Nyanpo Yuzee Conservation Association, 2017/10/27

Ju Tashi Sangpo: a Buddhist monk in Qinghai Jiuzhi’s Baiyudatang Monastery. He founded Nyanpo Yuzee Conservation Association in 2007. He led local people in monitoring changes in wild flora and fauna, wetlands, and climate, combining traditions with modern science. He uses videos, visual graphics, written words, and multiple ways to encourage people from the Nyanpo Yuzee region and nearby areas to live in harmony with nature.

Yufang Gao: has a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Peking University and a graduate degree in Environmental Science from Yale University, where he’s currently pursuing a doctorate degree in Conservation and Cultural Anthropology. He is a member of International Snow Leopard Conservation Network, and has spent many years conducting research in wildlife conservation.

The love-and-hate relationship between snow leopards and humans

Gao: In many conservation workers’ descriptions, snow leopards are the king of snow mountains, as well as the alpine spirit, both mysterious and beautiful. They are predators at the top of the food chain, considered alpine ecological systems’ keystone species and umbrella species, in addition to the indicator species of climate change. When communicating to people the importance of snow leopards, I often describe them in the same way. However, these descriptions, even snow leopards’ name, are merely tags created by outsiders based on their knowledge system and evaluation of the value of snow leopards. What are snow leopards in the eyes of the locals? Are they any different from other animals? What’s the relationship between snow leopards and humans?

Gao and Ju at Yale University; Photo Credit: Nyanpo Yuzee Conservation Association

Ju: Previously we didn’t pay a lot of attention to snow leopards, nor did we know them as a rare species. We thought that they are as common as wolves. Later, people started caring about them after seeing many pictures posted on the web and the appearance of snow leopards on CCTV. In 2008, when Dr. Lu Zhi and Dr. George Schaller came to Nyanpo Yuzee, Dr. Lu asked us whether there were snow leopards in the area. Back then, my Chinese wasn’t good enough, so I didn’t understand what she meant. It took me a long time to realize that “xuebao” (“snow leopard” in Chinese) is what my people know as “sa.” In the past, people equated snow leopards with wolves and didn’t think of them as special or rare. Things are different now, and people begin to recognize snow leopards’ rarity. After interviewing over a hundred herdsmen, we found out that snow leopards did not have many conflicts with humans in the past. Snow leopards used to have enough food in the mountains, where they spent all four seasons of the year. Their conflicts with humans began in the 70s, when people started killing them. This was how things were in Nyanpo Yuzee.


Gao: People often imagine the Tibetan Plateau in two extremes. One is that Tibet is a place where people live in harmony with wildlife; the other is that it’s a terrible place where people destroy the environment. What do you think is the real situation in the Tibetan Plateau?

Ju: It is neither a Shangri-la, nor a hell. The people there are religious, believe in the equality of different beings, and harbor deep respect for all lives. They normally wouldn’t slaughter wild animals. If snow leopards kill their sheep or cattles, some will kill the leopards in revenge. But they won’t kill the leopards for any other purposes. In the past, I thought of snow leopards as equal to these herdsmen. If snow leopards ate some livestock animals out of hunger, it was normal for people to beat the leopards out of anger. They didn’t change their attitude towards snow leopards after these animals became first-class national protected animals. I don’t think it’s fair if now people can’t beat the leopards anymore when they eat their livestock.

Gao: In recent years, more and more attention is paid to snow leopards. Do you think it’s a good thing? Sometimes I worry that, perhaps snow leopards are better off if we just leave them alone; the more we try to protect and study them, the more threats we bring to them. Our efforts attracted the attention of poachers who know the value of snow leopards, for instance. Moreover, the locals used to think of snow leopards as normal and equal to cattle and sheep. After they became celebrity animals and protected animals, will they have more conflicts with humans?

Ju: You need to consider the issue from two perspectives. From the viewpoint of the Association, snow leopards are widely known, giving us a reason to preserve the entire ecology of Nyanpo Yuzee under the name of snow leopard protection. If we mention protecting pikas, we probably won’t gather much support. Because of snow leopards, organizations and government agencies such as Sanjiangyuan Administration Bureau and Shanshui have all offered support, which we would not have obtained without snow leopards.

Gao: You mentioned the concept of flagship species. Through adorable, likable species like snow leopards, we can compel the entire society to contribute resources for conservation. Where did this idea come? Were you influenced by Shanshui [Conservation Center]?

Yu: Yes, I was influenced by Shanshui and you. Another thing is that people’s knowledge of the existence of snow leopards in this area leads to poaching. We use to not think of snow leopards as precious. Only their tails had value because they could be used to make scarves. Later, people realized that their skin is also valuable. In the past, herdsmen killed snow leopards to avenge the deaths of their livestock. Today, however, if we were to discover a case of snow leopard killing, we know that it is not out of revenge. Because the skin is taken away, we know that someone has killed the leopard because of the value of its skin.

How do the locals view “conservation”?; Photo Credit: Nyanpo Yuzee Association

Gao: Many conservation agencies claim that their goal is to facilitate a harmonious coexistence among, nature, humans, and wildlife. In your view, what is “conservation”? What is the goal of “conservation”? What would it look like if snow leopards are coexisting in harmony with humans?

Ju: I think it’s hard to say what things would be like when wild animals are coexisting in harmony with humans. Probably without any conflicts, like a long time ago. Even if conflicts exist, the two species should be equal, and neither should be considered “precious.” Sometimes wildlife can eat livestock, so can humans hunt wildlife in return. I think that all animals on earth, including humans, should be the same.

Gao: In the descriptions of some conservationists and the media, the wildlife on the Tibetan Plateau used to be very diverse, and humans used to live in harmony with them. However, after the 80s, as livestock overgrazing, mining, road construction, and other human activities began to increase, in addition to climate change, the quality of snow leopards’ habitats began to decrease. Their habitats also started to experience fragmentation and a decrease in area. The decrease in the number of preys available to the snow leopards, poaching, illegal trade, and the conflict between humans and snow leopards (which causes people to kill the leopards in vengeance) all severely threaten the leopards’ survival. According to your observations and knowledge of Nyanpo Yuzee, do you think that this is the case?

Ju: I agree. Climate change, tourist developments, and road construction all impact snow leopards. It’s right to put it this way.

Gao: In your opinion, in the past decades, has there been a change in the number of snow leopards? How about the number of their preys such as blue sheep?

Ju: I’m not too sure about the number of snow leopards. It’s hard to say. The number of blue sheep, their main food source, has definitely decreased, not increased. During the last few years, we started a monitor project and didn’t observe much change in blue sheep, only a decrease in some areas. Regaigou (name of a region) used to have around 60 blue sheep, but now it has only 30.  Many say that both the number of blue sheep and the number of snow leopards have increased. I don’t think it’s true. Because people are now starting to pay more attention to snow leopards, they see them more often, which mislead them into thinking that the number of snow leopards has increased.

Gao: I have another question. People like to compare the present with the past. When exactly is the “past”? Everyone conceives of the “past” differently.

Yu: The “past” I’m talking about is before China’s liberation.

Gao: What do you think are the causes for the change?

Yu: Mainly hunting. In 1984 and 85, Qinghai province bought approximately 4000 kilos of musks. 200,000 musk deer needed to be killed to derive such large quantities of musks. This happened not only to musk deer, but to blue sheep. When I was young, I saw with my own eyes 50, 60 blue sheep being killed each day.

Gao: In your view, based on this trend, what will the relationship between humans and snow leopards be after 2 to 3 decades?NBYZ4Ju: I think that in the future there won’t be any conflicts between humans and snow leopards. Because after 20 years, there won’t be any herdsmen left in the mountains. Many will move to urban areas. However, after 20 years, there also won’t be any snow leopards. One reason for this is the lack of food sources such as livestock and other wild animals. In addition, Nyanpo Yuzee is now building highways and airports for future use, which also threatens the lives of snow leopards. Thus, there won’t be any snow leopards in two decades.

The role scientific research and monitoring play in snow leopard conservation

Gao: In 2013, 12 representatives from snow leopard distribution countries convened in Kyrgyzstan and signed a declaration, emphasizing the importance of enhancing research and monitor efforts, prohibiting destructive developments, increasing the public’s participation in and ability to carry out conservation, banning poaching and illegal trade, encouraging businesses to participate in conservation, supporting snow leopard-friendly development projects, increasing collaboration among countries, etc. Since 2008, many snow leopard research and conservation teams began to emerge in China. They also have been trying all kinds of methods to protect snow leopards. Today we can’t really judge or evaluate these efforts. Thus, I want to discuss mainly two.NBYZ5

First, let’s discuss scientific research and supervision. Many conservation workers emphasize that, to preserve wild animals, we have to first know where they are located and how many of them exist. They think that conservation needs to be based on scientific research, using monitoring to learn the trend in changes and develop a management plan. Simultaneously, monitoring can estimate the progress of reaching conservation goals. Some say, only 2 percent of all snow leopard habitats have been systematically surveyed. Therefore, to protect snow leopards, we need to conduct more surveys. What do you think? Are scientific research and monitoring crucial to protecting the snow leopards in Tibet?

Ju: If they want to study snow leopards, they will need to monitor as well. Research can’t be done without data from monitoring. But whether or not protecting snow leopards require research is a question. It depends on whether or not research can alter local policies and issues. If it can’t, then research is useless to snow leopard conservation.

Gao: In Nyanpo Yuzee, the locals also did some monitoring. Some organizations such as Shanshui are also training people to monitor through infrared cameras. Based on what you know, how do the locals view this measure?

Ju: Initially, they found it intriguing. They usually put one infrared camera on the mountains and then returned after ten, twenty days to see shots of animals. After repeating the process for a while, they lost interest, especially in monitoring the number of wild animals such as blue sheep. Many people didn’t like it and thereby had stopped doing it.

Gao conducting research; Photo Credit: Nyanpo Yuzee Conservation Association

Gao: Nyanpo Yuzee also often has people coming over for scientific research such as Li Li and me. What do the local people think of us? What do they think of scientists?

Ju: They don’t really view you in a particular way. When Li Li and you were conducting research on grass fields, they all thought, will the results of your research lead you to kick them out of this place (something they all fear)?

What should we do about “bad” cultural traditions?

Gao: Next, I want to discuss cultural traditions with you. Peking University’s Dr. Juan Li published a research article in 2014. Through their research, she discovered that in Sanjiangyuan, 46% of its temples are situated within snow leopard habitats, and 90% within 5 kilometers of snow leopard habitats. Thus, she stresses that temples have a significant function in snow leopard conservation. Agencies focusing on conservation in the Tibetan Plateau, including Nyanpo Yuzee Conservation Association, also underscore the importance of cultural traditions. However, culture is a very complex concept. In my opinion, culture is a notation system, developed under a certain time and within a certain space, people use in their cognition of the world. In other words, it is a way of thinking, as culture shapes social structures and order and guides people’s social practices; people’s behaviors, social structures, and temporal changes all influence culture reciprocally. In sum, today let’s not discuss what culture is. What I want to say is, culture is not unchangeable. Then, what’s called traditional culture, tradition and present, local and foreign, are these boundaries separated from each other?

Ju: I think that there isn’t an obvious boundary between traditional and contemporary culture, so it’s difficult to say which is which. I consider what’s now modern, and what’s old traditional. However, I also wonder, how old is considered “traditional”? Can we say that something’s traditional after 100 or 200 years?

Gao: Are all traditions conductive to conservation? If we say that the concept of equality among lives in the religion practiced by Tibet overlaps with mainstream values, we then need to conserve. But if traditions don’t overlap with mainstream culture, should we abandon conservation?

Ju: Some traditions are very conservation-friendly, such as equality among all lives and beings. As to the bad traditions, we can definitely discard them. Tibetans’ practice of wearing otter skin, which has been practiced for thousands of years, is an example. Because it’s a bad one, we should abandon it. Other practices that harm the environment such as throwing bottles and hanging prayer flags should also be stopped because they are bad traditions.NBYZ7

Gao: In countries and regions in China that lack the cultural concept of equality among beings, what do you think should be done to protect the wild animals?

Ju: I think that the best method of conservation is to leave the wild animals alone. We should just leave them as they are and release them back into nature. Once we move them, something bad happens. Planting trees in the Gumuer Desert is not good. We destroy both the trees and the local ecosystem by doing so. Many people like to see green, so they all start planting trees and grasses. Many people are well-intentioned and think they’re doing a good thing. But having a good heart is useless. Grasslands, deserts, and forests have their own ecosystems. Planting trees on grasslands destroys the grassland ecosystem, so the best thing to do is not doing anything. This is also a Buddhist doctrine.

Gao: Time is limited, so I will ask you one last question. While we are discussing snow leopards today, what do snow leopards themselves think? Do you think they want to coexist with humans? Do they need humans’ protection? When you are meditating and imagining yourself as a snow leopard, what do you think the world in the eyes of snow leopards is like?

Ju: Haha. How do I answer this question? If I have changed into a snow leopard, can you understand what I’m saying?

Ju (as a snow leopard): I am 19 years old, an old snow leopard who struggles to survive. There’s a herdsman in this valley named Suori. Without him, I definitely can’t survive. There are very few wild animals on the mountains. In the winter, I can’t find anything to eat, for marmots are also hibernating. But the number of sheep in Souri’s home is decreasing. Souri now has five children. His sheep are not enough to sustain both his family and me.

I need to leave. I’m heading towards Eke Ditch. Oh I’m here. I don’t see any people here. The people who used to be here have moved away to become herdsmen with fixed residences. I also don’t see any wild animals here. I have to leave Nyanpo Yuzee. But where should I go? I can go to Yushuzaduo. I heard that it’s a very big place with many wild animals. I’m heading there.

Roads are being constructed everywhere. There are many cars, so I can only go there in the evening. It’s too far. My legs are failing me. I’m too hungry. There aren’t any livestock animals or wild animals for me to eat. Where did they all go? I see so many signs saying “protect wild animals,” but why don’t I see any wild animals? Who exactly are they protecting? Are these signs actually effective?

Wow! They are also constructing roads and mining in the Animaqing Snow Mountain. It no longer has any wild animals and snow leopards. I heard that there used to be an impressive snow leopard there. But even he is not there anymore. Ok. Neither can I survive there. I need to move along.

Wow! Is this Zaduo? It’s so beautiful! It’s like a paradise! So wonderful! I’m finally at Zaduo. It’s such an amazing place! But why do I see so many people here? I heard that there used not to be so many people here… Oh, it’s the development of tourism. Even here… I can’t move anymore. There’s no place for me to go.

Ju: Will a snow leopard think this way? This is just my own fancy. In fact, if the number of wild animals is really so small, many snow leopards would have to consume livestock for food in the winter. If the herdsmen don’t have any cattle or sheep, the leopards will be affected. That’s what I think.

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