KATMANDU – 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 system to prevent other herders from doing the same.
Sherpa lost his cattle near the village of Ghunsa, 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 immediately bundled the cubs into a sack and threw it into a local river.
Their bodies were found the following day.
“From that night onward, the mother snow leopard started crying from the mountain for her cubs, and my cattle were crying for the loss of their calves. I realized how big a sin I had committed and promised myself that I would never do such a thing in the future,” Sherpa said.
Four years ago, Sherpa, 48, founded an insurance plan for livestock with other locals that conservationists say is deterring herders from killing snow leopards that attack their animals.
In doing so, the system has created 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 system, 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 in return receive 2,500 rupees ($22.70) for any animal killed by snow leopards.
“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 Katmandu.
“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 worldwide population of snow leopards is estimated to number between just 4,080 and 6,590 adults, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which classifies the animal as “endangered” on its Red List of Threatened Species.
Experts believe only 300 to 500 adults survive in Nepal, and few can claim ever to have seen the secretive, solitary “mountain ghost,” which lives around 5,000 to 6,000 meters 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, although 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 cat, revered for its thick gray patterned pelt.
Snow leopards do, however, have a taste for sheep, goats and other livestock essential for the livelihoods of farmers, and they are often killed by humans either as a preventative measure or in revenge for the deaths of livestock.
WWF Nepal Conservation revealed details of its insurance system in filmed interviews shown at the recent Katmandu International Mountain Film Festival.
Sherpa now campaigns to convince other local herders and 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 WWF Nepal Conservation.
The insurance scheme, which also covers sheep and goats, was set up with 1.2 million rupees (about $13,650)donated by the University of Zurich.
Since the launch of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Snow Leopard Insurance plan four years ago, no snow leopard is thought to have been killed in retaliation for preying on livestock.
Locals, who count the number of cattle attacked in addition to tracks, fecal pellets and scratches in the ground, believe the local snow leopard population has 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 that welcomes just a few hundred trekkers a year, compared with 74,000 in Annapurna in north-central Nepal.
“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 system’s benefits will remain anecdotal until the publication next year of the results of a wide-ranging camera trapping survey.
However, locals are optimistic about the species’ 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 snow leopard and its numbers will increase.”