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How snow leopards and nomads coexist on the Tibetan Plateau

Many people are familiar with human hostility towards large predators. Sometimes we are afraid for ourselves, but most persecution is due to fears of livestock depredation. 

In many parts of the world, predator populations are seriously depleted, or in some cases, have been wiped out. Eradication programs combined with habitat loss are severe impediments to the survival of large predators. However, a recent study published in the journal Animal Conservation can give us some hope for the future.

Dr. Lingyun Xiao from the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University explored nomadic herders’ relationships with the snow leopards (Panthera uncia) that they share space with on the Tibetan Plateau.

Specifically, they looked at livestock grazing and its impact on the snow leopard and their primary prey, the bharal (Pseudois nayaur). The results may be surprising. Dr. Xiao discovered that although the landscape is dominated by livestock (13 to 1), grazing had no adverse effect on snow leopards or their prey.

Dr. Xiao believes this has to do with the bharals’ preferred habitat. Bharals are wild goats that prefer high altitudes and rugged mountains. As you can imagine, these are not places where you would expect to find an abundance of grass. Livestock, such as yak and sheep, desire lower areas such as river valleys with plenty of grass to nibble on. Because the primary prey species of the snow leopard occupies a different niche in the ecosystem, conflicts are minimal.

“We found that the space occupied by snow leopards and humans is actually separated to some extent, the conflict between snow leopards and humans is relatively small, and the coexistence of humans and animals can be achieved.”

Dr. Xiao hopes this study encourages conservationists and policymakers to consider the ecological niches of animals when managing large carnivores and creating city plans. 

The research is published in the journal Animal Conservation.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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