We need to bring together farmer communities with willing buyers from the fashion industry
The mountains of Central Asia are where the endangered snow leopards live. The higher Himalayas, the Pamirs, the Tien Shan, the Altai, all remote and faraway, seemingly insulated from our consumerist lifestyles. Indeed, the main causes of the cat's endangerment appear to arise largely from local activities - persecution in retaliation against predation on livestock, for instance. Understandable, as livestock continues to remain a precious resource for people in these climatically and topographically harsh mountain landscapes.
Living thousands of miles away, it is difficult to imagine that our daily choices, literally the clothes we choose to wear, are shaping the chances of survival - or extinction - of the snow leopard and several other species of the Central Asian mountains.
The surging global demand for cashmere, that wonderful soft and warm fibre, is compromising the survival prospects of the snow leopard, the saiga, and a host of other iconic species of the Himalayas and Central Asia. Yet, the same fashion industry is also bringing better livelihood opportunities for local people, our biggest partners and hope for wildlife conservation in these mountains. It sounds complex, and it is complex. What exactly is going on, and what do we do?
In a recent paper I co-authored with my friend Joel Berger and our Mongolian colleague Buuveibaatar, we have tried to explore the complex pathways through which the largely Western demand for cashmere is affecting Central Asian wildlife. Cashmere is derived from the lightweight under hair of domestic goats, and the bulk of the global production comes from snow leopard landscapes of Central Asia.
Supplying the increasing global demand for cashmere is met with by increasing the goat population. So across large parts of Central Asia, we see an ongoing escalation of livestock populations, and changes in herd composition in favour of goats. Mongolia alone has seen an increase in its livestock population from approximately five million in 1990 to 14 million in 2010.
As domestic herds grow, they consume the bulk of the forage available in the mountain pastures, leaving behind inadequate food for the several species of wild herbivores that inhabit these mountains and arid zones that we have worked in. These include many wild relatives of livestock, such as the ibex, the blue sheep, and the argali that constitute an important genetic resource, in addition to being the natural prey species of the snow leopard and other predators such as the wolf.
In fact, when we put together available data from multiple sites, we found that the populations of livestock are so disproportionately high compared to the current populations of wild herbivores that the domestics are currently consuming 95% of the forage, and the wild natives a mere 5%.
As the availability of its natural prey declines in the habitat, the extent of livestock predation by the snow leopard and other predators can be expected to increase. Our earlier research has shown that a high proportion of the snow leopard's diet is made up of livestock in areas of high livestock and low wild herbivore abundance. Thus, the conflict between conservation and human livelihoods escalates. This means that a direct result of cashmere is the depletion of several iconic wild herbivores, and a net result is the further endangerment of the snow leopard.
What can we do? If we are serious about conserving snow leopards and associated biodiversity of Central Asia, and if we also care about the welfare of local people, the only way to do this sustainably is through partnerships with local communities, the same farmers who are producing the cashmere we wear. It ultimately boils down not to our ability to preach, but to our ability to enable local people to conserve.
Indeed, there are several programs with local communities that we have pioneered, that aim to get people's support and involvement in snow leopard conservation. These include livelihood enhancement options such as the Snow Leopard Enterprises that trains women in handicrafts development and provides a market for their produce in return for conservation commitments.
A Snow Leopard Friendly Livestock Vaccination Programme assists herding communities with better livestock health care. A Corral Improvement Programme assists in making livestock pens predator proof, thereby reducing the instances of multiple livestock kills in single predation events, which are particularly economically damaging for the farmer. A community-based livestock insurance programme shares and offsets economic losses when snow leopards and wolves do kill livestock. Such programmes help to increase local people's willingness, and their ability, to join hands with conservation efforts.
Similarly, there is a clear need to explore how cashmere production could be made ecologically sustainable and conservation friendly. As conservationists who care for snow leopards, and care for local people, the next step for us is to bring together some of the farmer communities with some of the willing buyers from the garment/fashion industry. We want to discuss the possibility of the farmers starting to produce "Snow Leopard Friendly" cashmere. Such a program would reward farmers who have the ability and the willingness to coexist with snow leopards, and who are willing to adjust their livestock density to provide grazing space for wild herbivores. The industry too needs to come forward, and be willing to create market channels that could help sell sustainably produced cashmere at a premium.
If, in the future, you come across a stole labeled "Snow Leopard Friendly", do not hesitate to buy!
Charudutt Mishra is a Whitley Award Winner and Science and Conservation Director of the Snow Leopard Trust, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Network and a Trustee of Nature Conservation Foundation. He works across the snow leopard range countries of India, Pakistan, China, Mongolia and Kyrgyztan. The UK-based charity Whitley Fund for Nature has developed a long-term partnership with Mishra and regularly supports his ground-breaking work through continuation grants.