Oh deer, what can the matter be?

Jonny writes about the snow leopard’s preferred prey in Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park.

Snow leopards are big cats.  Weighing between 35kg/77lbs and 55kg/121lbs, and with an active lifestyle in a cold environment, they need to eat a lot of food to keep them going and keep them warm.  Like all large felines, they tend to catch a big prey animal – like a wild sheep or goat – every couple of days if it’s available, and will often stay near the kill until it’s finished.  A snow leopard killing three sheep-sized animals every two weeks could therefore get through around 75 in a year.  That’s a lot of lamb chops.

But snow leopards don’t always have the luxury of dining al fresco on the choicest cuts of red meat.  Often, when food is scarce, they’ll take whatever’s going – hares, partridges, and even, as some studies have found, plant material.  Because snow leopards range across more than a million square kilometres, over 12 Asian countries, their diets tend to reflect the different groups of animals present in different habitat types, albeit with a preference for wild sheep and goats.  Hot-off-the-press research shows that snow leopard diets are grouped into four regional prey type zones (see map below).

Lyngdoh et al 2014, Prey preferences of the snow leopard

Lyngdoh et al 2014, Prey preferences of the snow leopard

In Sagarmatha National Park (SNP), which is in zone one, the favoured prey of the snow leopard is not domestic animals but a wild goat species called the Himalayan tahr.  They prefer these to rustling cattle and other livestock.  The problem, however, is that the tahr themselves are not particularly numerous and as the snow leopard population here has recovered over the last 15 years or so, they’ve taken a heavy toll on the tahr.  Some local people don’t think they’re declining though.  In fact, they resent the fact that the tahr come into their fields and trash their potato crops.  We even saw one individual brazenly waltzing through Thamo village, only a few metres away from us.

Himalayn tahr in Sagmartha National Park.  Photo by Maurice Schutgens

Himalayn tahr in Sagmartha National Park. Photo by Maurice Schutgens

The only other large herbivore in SNP that snow leopards occasionally prey on is the musk deer.  These tend to inhabit forests where snow leopards venture less often, so they’re a secondary prey species.  They’re also rare in their own right, especially because some unscrupulous people poach them for their musk glands, a highly-valued material used in perfumes.  The snares set for them amongst the trees can catch other animals too.  The army battalion stationed in the National Park told us that they sometimes encountered these traps on their patrols and had apprehended a poacher or two as well.

Himalayan musk deer

Himalayan musk deer

With both Himalayan tahr and musk deer relatively thin on the ground, this often leads to snow leopards taking livestock, as we’ve discussed on this blog at length.  But change is in the air.  The blue sheep, or bharal, is a large wild sheep species which is one of the snow leopard’s favourite meals.  Plans are afoot to move a population of this magnificent creature from other parts of Nepal to the Everest region, in the hope that snow leopard predation on livestock will decrease.  A study to check if the habitat here is suitable for bharal has already proved to be positive.  Now, our own study is consulting with local people about the proposed translocation.

Blue sheep/bharal

Blue sheep/bharal

So far, the reaction has been mixed.  People can see pros – hopefully less livestock eaten – and cons – potentially more potatoes eaten!  Whichever way it ends up, the important thing is that the locals are being asked for their views.  Participation like this goes a long way to helping communities take ownership of the natural wealth around them, both snow leopards and snow leopard prey.

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