Water is key to understanding snow leopard habitat and snow leopard conservation. Jonny explains.
Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
Life in the Himalayas is defined by water. It’s everywhere, but like in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, there’s less of it to drink than you might think. That’s because the majority of the water is ice and snow. Indeed, there’s so much ice and snow here that the region has been dubbed ‘The Third Pole’. Across the snow leopard’s mountain kingdom – in the Himalayas and other Central Asian ranges – there are four main ways that water relates to the species.
Water has sculpted snow leopard habitat. Aeons ago, before the Indian sub-continent collided with the Asian landmass to create the Himalayas, rivers flowed into the sea where now there are mountains. Some of these rivers forged new valleys through the perimeters of the mountain chain as it was established, bound by the compulsion of every river to flow to the sea. In the western Himalayas, the Indus and its tributaries divined new pathways to the ocean; in the east, the Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes the Brahmaputra) did the same.
Other rivers were blocked by the new barrier and formed brackish lakes on what is now the Tibetan plateau. In time, their salt was harvested and traded over the passes to the south. Still others were formed as the great altitude of the Himalayas allowed snow to compact into glaciers on its flanks. These rivers of ice, though diminishing, continue to widen and deepen Himalayan valleys today, accommodating the ecosystems that support snow leopards.
Water dictates snow leopard habitat. The name ‘snow leopard’ is itself something of a misnomer as the cats are generally found in the alpine zone above the tree-line and below the permanent snowline. Higher up is a frozen wasteland. There simply isn’t enough food for snow leopards as there just aren’t any plants to support their prey species. Frozen water acts as a glass ceiling to life here.
At the lower end of the snow leopard habitat zone, climate change is causing the tree-line to shift upwards in many parts of the species’ range. One study has suggested that this may reduce the amount of habitat available for snow leopards in the alpine zone, and also diminish the connectivity corridors between different pockets of its population. Whether or not the snowline will also creep upwards – possibly meaning no net loss of habitat – remains to be seen.
Water comes from snow leopard habitat. Across the various mountain ranges where snow leopards are found exist thousands of glaciers. These glaciers birth thousands of rivers which, between their sources and their mouths, provide water for tens of thousands of species and for not just millions, but billions, of people. In fact, snow leopard habitat provides water for a third of the human race! That’s well over 2 billion people, and counting, spread across the 12 countries where snow leopards live, as well as eight other Asian nations downriver.
Water is protected by snow leopard habitat. The mountain ecosystems that are the drinking fountain of the world are fragile. Snow leopards and other predators help to maintain the balance of life here, regulating the populations of plant-eaters, which in turn regulate the plant communities which maintain soil structure and minimise erosion. This delicate equilibrium is easily disrupted: take away the snow leopards and/or their prey; add too many livestock; deforest; develop rampantly with no regard for environmental issues. Do these and this water of life is easily filled with silt, polluted or released in raging torrents, all with tragic consequences both up- and downstream.
Water is the foundation of our inter-connected world. The lives of so many people, so many species, and so few snow leopards are linked together through their dependence on the waters that flow from the mountains of Central Asia. These mountains were themselves sculpted by water, and water frames the alpine zone in which snow leopards mostly live. Conserving this mountain monarch is undoubtedly an end in itself. But conserving the snow leopard is also a means to conserve the water supplies on which our own species depends.