‘I’ve never seen a snow leopard in the wild’ – the anthropologist who has spent two decades protecting Pakistan’s elusive big cats

Editor’s Note: Editor’s Note: Call to Earth is a CNN initiative in partnership with Rolex. Shafqat Hussain is a Rolex Awards Laureate.

CNN  — 

For over 20 years, environmental anthropologist Shafqat Hussain has been working to protect snow leopards in his native Pakistan.

Situated in the north of the country, the Gilgit-Baltistan region is home to three of the highest mountain ranges on Earth. This rocky terrain is perhaps “the best snow leopard habitat in the world,” according to Hussain.

“These magnificent creatures can live at (altitudes up to) 20,000 feet, in rarefied air, in minus 30 degrees centigrade,” he says.

Snow leopards prey on species like markhor – wild goats with impressive screw-shaped horns – and other mountain mammals including blue sheep, ibex and marmots. Their short forelimbs and longer hind legs help them navigate the steep, rocky terrain and enable them to jump up to ten meters.

But despite being so well adapted to their mountain home, snow leopards are under threat.

04:00 - Source: CNN
Protecting Pakistan's elusive snow leopards

Their numbers are difficult to estimate, but IUCN data from 2016 suggests there are around 250 in Pakistan and a total of around 7,500 snow leopards across 12 countries in Central and South Asia, although a recent report shows that less than 25% of their range has been properly researched.

But while their numbers are small, these elusive predators come into conflict with local farmers when they prey on livestock, causing “a huge economic loss” to the farmers, who retaliate by killing snow leopards, Hussain says.

Through his non-profit – the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation & Development Organization – Hussain tracks snow leopards using camera traps and genetic testing, and works with local communities in 26 villages to resolve this conflict. With an estimated 30 to 50 snow leopards living in the region around those villages, his mission is to find ways for both humans and snow leopards to survive and thrive.

CNN spoke to Hussain about his experiences protecting these beautiful big cats and how he’s found ways for them to live alongside local communities.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: Despite your dedication to snow leopards, you’ve never seen one in the wild. Can you tell us about a close encounter?

Shafqat Hussain: The first time I heard a snow leopard roar was almost 14, 15 years ago … I was conducting surveys with my assistant and we suddenly heard this roar and our feet just froze in the ice … You could hear it echoing through the valley. It was almost like a surround sound system … We had a general idea where it was coming from, but because the cat is so nicely camouflaged we could not see it. But it was a very exhilarating experience, just (to) know that we are in the presence of this magnificent species out in the wild. I know they’re there and I get satisfaction out of the fact that they are watching me, (even) if I’m not watching them.

Markhor goats are one of the prey species for snow leopards, along with other mammals like ibex, blue sheep and marmots.

Are snow leopards dangerous to people?

There is no reported incident of them attacking a human being. So unlike common leopards or tigers or lions which pose mortal danger to human life, for some reason, snow leopards never attack human beings (but) they do attack their livestock and hence incur damage. (In Baltistan) living with snow leopards is to live with this constant threat. Ninety-five per cent of these people … keep livestock and they also have small agricultural fields, and every now and then their livestock gets attacked by predators, such as snow leopards. That really brings a huge economic loss in relative terms for these people. So then they retaliate by attacking and killing these predators.

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What strategies do you use to reduce the conflict between humans and snow leopards?

First is the insurance or the compensation schemes, because there is a lot of demand from local people to financially compensate them for their losses. People argue that they are not inherently against these predators … Their main demand is that if we think that these beautiful predators … are public property and especially state property, then state and public should do something about the cost that these animals incur to the local communities.

Hussain has helped set up schemes to compensate local communities for livestock killed by predators such as snow leopards.

The other strategy is to construct predator-proof corrals (for livestock). We are also implementing a conservation program and trying to instil conservation ethics in the younger generation of the local society. Ultimately you can manage animals … but unless we get the human (side of the) equation right, it’s very difficult to sustain any conservation effort in the long run. So approaching human-wildlife conflict is approaching the problem from the eyes of the local people. As an anthropologist, that’s what you’re trained to do.

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Why is it important to conserve snow leopards?

Snow leopards are considered what we call a keystone predator, meaning that they have a very important role to play in maintaining the integrity and stability of the ecosystem. So by checking and limiting the number of herbivores that are present in this fragile mountain ecosystem, snow leopards can check overgrazing and hence land erosion and soil erosion that will result from it.

Do we need to make more space for nature and other species, like snow leopards?

Yes, I think we have to, otherwise we have very little chance of surviving. It’s now becoming very clear that we cannot ignore that our lives are intertwined with many other lives that exist in nature … I think a real adaptation is needed at the level of our thinking. Through climate change, through pumping in novel compounds and pollutants in the atmosphere, through genetically modifying nature, human beings have really altered the very fabric of what we call nature. We need to open ourselves to the possibility that this Earth was made not only for Homo sapiens, but for other beings as well. And how can we live with those beings in a more democratic, in a more fruitful and peaceful way.