The Killing Fields of the Himalaya

Maurice recounts the worrying level of predation by snow leopards in SNP 

We look at each other and shake our heads.

It is an outrageous claim…but what if its true? That would be worrying to say the least.

Rinzin and I are sat in the home of the Chairman of the Buffer Zone User Group Committee. He nods, as if to back up his statement.

The settlement of Pangboche, situated at 3900m could not be in a more picturesque location. Its a stone throw away from the stunning Ama Dablam that fills the skyline. Pangboche is a settlement divided into an upper and lower section with the lower half flanked by the snaking river. Its not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination and looking at it one would never guess that the pastures surrounding it were the Himalaya killing fields.

Lower Pangboche

Lower Pangboche

This past year the Snow Leopard has allegedly (and I say allegedly because from a carcass its hard to make a distinction between the work of a Snow Leopard or a Common Leopard) claimed up to 40 livestock in Pangboche.

One village. One year. 40 kills.

Incredible. The chairman continues informing us that Pangboche has lost 10 livestock in the last 30 days. Rinzin and I shake our heads again. The questions filling our heads:

‘How many Snow leopards are there in the Pangboche area? Why are livestock such easy prey here? Why are Snow Leopards favouring livestock over natural prey? What do the locals feel towards Snow Leopards…?’ And many more.

Livestock obviously do not constitute natural prey for the Snow Leopard (or for the Common Leopard for that matter). But it appears that the Snow Leopard(s) has taken quite the liking to the taste. The chairman tells us the majority of the victims are young individuals and many of the killings take place when the locals leave the Everest valley and head for Kathmandu (to avoid the bitter cold) leaving their livestock unprotected roaming in the pastures. Some would call them sitting ducks. I would.

We interviewed several other locals from Pangboche and the stories seemed to corroborate what we had heard. One yak herder claimed he had lost 3 calves in a single evening. The killing took place in the pastures near to the settlement. A devastating loss for a family whose livelihood is derived from livestock.

Another account was equally intreguing. A livestock herder claimed the Snow Leopard went on killing sprees – leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. This particular Leopard had encountered a group of 6-7 livestock and had systematically killed each and every one of them. The carcasses, once found, were found to be drained of their blood but otherwise untouched. It was the work of a Snow Leopard Vampire. It was unfortunate that we could not have a look at the carcasses ourselves but the stories themselves were disturbing enough.

Such losses are not sustainable for any livestock herder in the long run. Even the loss of a single animal can be a crippling blow to a family. A mature cow may fetch around $350 while a Yak would set you back up to $700. For households with annual incomes of around $500-1000 (much derived from said animal) this constitutes potential economic ruin. If such people bear ill-will towards the Snow Leopard…its not hard to fathom why.

A question on your minds must be  – surely there exists a compensation scheme to compensate these people fort heir losses. Indeed it does exist, but there are a number of, lets call them challenges, concerning the scheme in Sagarmatha NP.

Half the locals in the park have never heard of the scheme or are convinced it doesnt exist when you try to tell them it does in fact exist while the other half claim that the process is so complicated that it is both a waste of time and money. They claim that they dont even know to who they should be reporting their losses and that they wouldnt bother anyway because the amount of financial compensation they receive is but a fraction of the market value. There is no point.

A few days later we meet with the NP Warden in Namche Bazar – the most powerful man in Sagarmatha NP (if you ignore the army Major with his heavily armed battalion next door). Over cups of sweet tea he explains that the compensation process could not be simpler. Pictures of the dead animal must be submitted along with a necessary form  and after review the applicant can receive up to $100 in compensation. He does however concede that the amount is very little…but that is the way it is.

The locals in return would complain ‘and where do we get a camera to take a picture?’. Its a stalemate of sorts, an ineffective system. There are no winners, only losers.

Compensation schemes are ubiquitous and a crucial presence in 21st century conservation worldwide from crop-raiding elephants to livestock killing lions.They deserve their place in conservation management certainly, but where funding is few and far between they are not the long-term solution. And Sagarmatha NP needs a solution.

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