'Yak insurance' plan saving Nepal's snow leopard

Dec 26, 2012 by Frankie Taggart
This handout photograph taken by a remote camera trap and released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Nepal shows a rare snow leopard in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, 260 kilometres (160 miles) east of the Nepalese capital Kathmandu. An innovative insurance plan for yak and other livestock is deterring herders from killing snow leopards that attack their animals.

The remorse felt by Himali Chungda Sherpa after he killed three snow leopard cubs in retaliation for his lost cattle inspired him to set up a scheme to prevent other herders from doing the same.

Sherpa lost his cattle near Ghunsa village at the base of Mount Kangchenjunga on the Nepal-India border, later finding their remains in a cave beside three sleeping snow leopard cubs.

The Nepalese herder put the cubs in a sack and threw them into the river, finding their bodies the next day.

"From that night onwards the mother snow leopard started crying from the mountain for her cubs, and my cattle were crying for the loss of their .

"I realised how big a sin I had committed and promised myself that I would never do such a thing in the future."

Four years ago Sherpa, 48, founded with other locals an insurance plan for livestock that conservationists say is deterring herders from killing snow leopards that attack their animals.

In doing so the scheme has given hope for the endangered cat, whose numbers across the mountains of 12 countries in south and central Asia are thought to have declined by 20 percent over the past 16 years.

Under the scheme, herders pay in 55 rupees ($1.50) a year for each of their hairy yaks, the vital pack animal that is also kept for milk and meat, and are paid 2,500 rupees for any animal killed by the endangered cat.

"The (Himalayan) communities have been able to pay out compensation for more than 200 animals since the scheme started," WWF Nepal conservation director Ghana Gurung told reporters at a presentation in the capital Kathmandu.

"The community members are the ones that monitor this, they are the ones who do the patrolling and they are the ones who verify the kills."

The global snow leopard population is estimated at just 4,080-6,590 adults according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists the animal as "endangered" on its red list of threatened species.

Experts believe just 300 to 500 adults survive in Nepal, and few can claim ever to have seen the secretive, solitary "mountain ghost", which lives 5,000 to 6,000 metres (16,500 to 20,000 feet) above sea level.

Despite its name, it is not a close relative of the leopard and has much more in common genetically with the tiger, though it is thought to have a placid temperament.

"There has never been a case of a snow leopard attacking a human," Gurung said of the animal, revered for its thick grey patterned pelt.

It does, however, have a taste for sheep, goats and other livestock essential for the livelihoods of farmers and is often killed by humans either as a preventative measure or in revenge for the deaths of their animals.

WWF Nepal revealed details of its insurance scheme in filmed interviews shown at the recent Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival.

Sherpa now campaigns to convince Himalayan farmers that killing snow leopards is wrong, but has been frequently told they need to kill the animal to protect their livelihoods.

"I swear if I can catch a snow leopard. They rob our animals and our source of livelihood," herder Chokyab Bhuttia told the WWF.

The insurance plan, which also covers sheep and goats, was set up with 1.2 million rupees donated by the University of Zurich.

Since the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Snow Leopard Insurance plan was launched four years ago no snow leopard is thought to have been killed in retaliation for preying on livestock since.

Locals, who count the number of cattle attacked as well as tracks, fecal pellets and scratches in the ground, believe snow leopard numbers have significantly increased.

"There is now an awareness among people that the snow leopard is an endangered animal and we have to protect it. The insurance policy has made people more tolerant to the loss of their livestock," Sherpa said.

He believes protecting the snow leopard is vital to boosting the economy in an area which gets just a few hundred trekkers a year, compared with 74,000 in Annapurna.

"If a tourist sees a snow leopard and takes a picture of it there will be publicity of our region and more tourists will come," Sherpa said.

Evidence of the scheme's benefits will remain anecdotal until the publication next year of the results of a wide-ranging camera trapping survey.

But locals are optimistic about the animal's future, according to Tsheten Dandu Sherpa, chairman of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Management Council.

"In this area there was never any poaching of snow leopards for trade. They were killed only as a retaliatory act by livestock owners," he said.

"Now with this insurance policy there will definitely be protection of the and its numbers will increase."

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User comments : 12

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Jo01
3.3 / 5 (8) Dec 26, 2012
His crime can never be fixed. But his trying to (fix it) is commendable.

J.
jscroft
2 / 5 (12) Dec 26, 2012
His "crime"??? Good Lord. Going to be interesting to see what happens when the now-uncontested snow leopard population grows beyond this insurance plan's capacity to support it.
DrGravitas
3.1 / 5 (9) Dec 26, 2012
Yes, when your country declares an animal as protected and passes a law banning you from shooting it and you shoot it, then it is a crime. It doesn't matter if a law is just or unjust, or if you agree or not. It's still a law and breaking it is still a crime.

As for his insurance company, if he's smart enough to set it up, then he's smart enough to realize he should diversify its coverage offerings to shore up potential shortfalls in fee collections should the Snow Leopard population grow too large.
DrGravitas
3 / 5 (9) Dec 26, 2012
Yes, when your country declares an animal as protected and passes a law banning you from shooting it and you shoot it, then it is a crime. It doesn't matter if a law is just or unjust, or if you agree or not. It's still a law and breaking it is still a crime.


Correction on my part: technically he didn't shoot the cubs, but drowned them. The law bans the killing of the animal anyways, but I felt the inaccuracy of my post might lead one to believe I hadn't bothered to read the article and merely reacted to the post.

Furthermore, subsequent readings indicate the tone might come off as insulting (especially when read in the light of the incorrect information) and for that I apologize. The tone I was going for was aloof, unsympathetic, and factual.
antialias_physorg
4.6 / 5 (5) Dec 26, 2012
Going to be interesting to see what happens when the now-uncontested snow leopard population grows beyond this insurance plan's capacity to support it.

Snow leopards have been around before humans started killing them - and they (and their prey species) survived. Don't worry about nature so much. It can handle itself very well even when left 'unchecked'. And the guy will simply stop having this insurance scheme when the endangered species is no longer endangerd.
Everybody wins.
DrGravitas
1 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2012
@Antialias physorg
I took his post to be more about the farmers than the animals. That is to say, I believe they are suggesting we consider the case of farmer's claims outpacing the collection of the insurance fees.

Given that the number of farmers is relatively fixed (and assuming the number of fee-paying participants remains fixed or reaches a maximum) and the population of animals continues to grow (assuming the number of kills rises at an equal to or greater rate) then there may come a time when the animal population rises sufficiently that the kills (and subsequent claims) may outpace fee collection.

Of course, this ignores that the environment's capacity to support the Snow Leopards. It may be that the capacity population is falls short of this critical fee-collection-to-claim-payment ratio and can never be reached. On the other hand, even if the capacity is beyond the critical value, my diversification scheme would still address the short fall.
Moebius
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 26, 2012
The sad thing is that there are so few snow leopards that those 3 cubs he killed may be the ones that tip the species onto the road to inevitable extinction. It's too bad they can't be introduced elsewhere where they would be safe, like maybe the rockies.
semmsterr
5 / 5 (3) Dec 26, 2012
His "crime"??? Good Lord. Going to be interesting to see what happens when the now-uncontested snow leopard population grows beyond this insurance plan's capacity to support it.


It will also be interesting see what will happen when our population and habits finally outgrow the earth's ability to support them.
jscroft
2.4 / 5 (10) Dec 26, 2012
It will also be interesting see what will happen when our population and habits finally outgrow the earth's ability to support them.


It already has, by several orders of magnitude. Do you suppose the Earth could support seven billion paleolithic nomads?

But every new human brings with him a new mind, capable of language, problem-solving, and invention, as well as a pair of hands with which to give those ideas the weight of reality. This is what distinguishes humans from other animals: we can combine intelligence and labor to convert low-value stuff into high-value stuff.

For all of human history our capacity to provide for ourselves grows more than linearly with our population. So long as we remain free, there are NO limits to our growth. To the extent that Earth imposes them, we will simply move beyond her.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2012
I took his post to be more about the farmers than the animals. That is to say, I believe they are suggesting we consider the case of farmer's claims outpacing the collection of the insurance fees.

Since the elucidate the point why the guy set up the insurance (in order to make up for the wrong he felt he had done) I'm reading this differently.

And I'm sure that by the time snow leopard will have increased to sufficient numbers to be a real problem that scheme will be dropped again. But for now it's a good way of making sure that an endangered species does not become a terminated one.

There are other factors that limit a species' spread. Territoriality may be one (though snow leopards do not seem to be too aggressive towards others in their territory)
koustubh
5 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2012
Several community owned insurance programs such as this one run successfully in many parts of the Himalayas in India, Mongolia and Pakistan. These programs have been on going in some places for more than 10 years without any instances of snow leopards outpacing the insurance, other than a handful of stray incidences of surplus killings, which are natural.

Conflict is inevitable as long as people and wildlife overlap. The trick is to let the occasional depredated livestock be eaten up by the wild animal whilst the insurance claim by the owner is paid up to prevent retaliation; keeping corruption at bay by limiting the scheme at small decentralized scales and within hamlets/communities (each hamlet with its own insurance fund); and reduce depredation by helping improve wild prey populations and better guarding of livestock.
xen_uno
1 / 5 (1) Dec 30, 2012
jscroft - "So long as we remain free, there are NO limits to our growth. To the extent that Earth imposes them, we will simply move beyond her"

Ya? Your dreaming. We already have to drag the unproductive and lazy with us, whose numbers grow much faster than those productive and truly intelligent. Hell hath no fury like mother nature scorned.

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