Saving the Snow Leopard

by Belinda Recio

Tibetan Buddhist monks play an important role in saving the snow leopard.

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Snow leopards have been roaming the rugged mountains of Central Asia ever since they originated on the Tibetan Plateau about three million years ago. Their dense coats (up to five inches thick) and agile strength (they can jump 30 feet) made them ideally suited to their cold, high-altitude home. Despite their long reign in a remote habitat, like so many top predators, the snow leopard’s future is threatened, which is why they were listed as endangered in 1972. Poaching, retribution killings, habitat loss, diminished prey and inadequate protection have reduced this iconic cat’s numbers to between 3,500 and 7,000 in the wild.

Like many animals at the top of the food chain, the snow leopard is considered an indicator species, meaning its status reflects the health of the larger ecosystem. But snow leopard conservation is especially challenging because these elusive cats have a fragmented and thinly distributed range that covers two million square miles of largely unprotected habitat spanning across 12 countries. Even when snow leopards and their habitat are protected by policies and nature reserves, there are not enough rangers to patrol and enforce the laws. But there are a lot of Buddhists.

Dr. Li Juan, a researcher from Peking University, and the first female scientist to earn a Ph.D. in zoology with a focus on snow leopards, often interviews people in communities located in snow leopard habitat. During one of her first interviews in the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, located along the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau, she was surprised by how often people stated that Tibetan Buddhism prohibited the killing of wildlife, including snow leopards.

Li Juan learned that every monastery has sacred land, which often includes a “sacred mountain” believed to be under the guardianship of a snow leopard. Hunting on sacred lands is prohibited by Buddhist tradition, so monks patrol and monitor human activity in their vicinity. The Rinpoches and Khenpos—the spiritual leaders and teachers of the monasteries—teach the local people to protect the environment by reminding them of the Buddhist reverence for life.

Intrigued by the role that Tibetan Buddhism appeared to be playing in snow leopard conservation, Li Juan and a group of other researchers—which included the preeminent field biologist, George Schaller—set out to investigate the spatial relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and snow leopard habitat. They mapped the locations of 81 Buddhist monasteries in the reserve and discovered that nearly half of the monasteries were in snow leopard habitat and 90 percent were within three miles of their habitat.

With so many more monasteries and monks than conservation stations and rangers, Li Juan and the other researchers quickly realized that the monks and their Buddhist spiritual traditions played an important role in snow leopard conservation. They also recognized that monks had the potential to play an even bigger part. So they began a pilot program with four monasteries in Sanjiangyuan. They trained monks in monitoring techniques and provided support for community education.

Although Li Juan and the other researchers will have to wait for follow-up data before they know how successful the pilot program is, they are optimistic. In the three years they have been collaborating with monks in the pilot area, there haven’t been any reports of snow leopard killings. Li Juan and her colleagues see the collaboration with the Buddhist monks as a salient reminder that science and religion often share the same values and can work together toward common goals.

 Get Involved

• The Snow Leopard Trust

• Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve Tour

Interview with Dr. Li Juan

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OSM: You are the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in zoology with a focus on the snow leopard. What made you choose the elusive snow leopard?

LJ: I don’t see it as a choice as much as “karma.” We call it yuanfen in Chinese, which is similar to fate, or destiny, in English.

OSM: What was the most interesting aspect of working with the Buddhist monks?

LJ: The monks broadened my horizons with their unique perspective on the world, and the way they see wildlife. Also, I found it fascinating that the monks have so much in common with snow leopards, especially those monks who go on spiritual retreats. Just like the snow leopard, these monks prefer caves on the high rugged mountains!

OSM: Do you have other ideas for how science and local culture could work together toward conservation goals?

LJ: Indigenous peoples have valuable traditional ecological knowledge about their environment and scientists have valuable scientific knowledge based on their research, but we share our knowledge through very different “languages.” We need to work with interpreters not only to translate, from Chinese to Tibetan, for example, but also to “translate” from the local way of seeing and understanding the world to the scientific way, and vice versa. This will deepen mutual understanding and advance our common conservation goals.

OSM: What is the most fascinating thing you have learned about snow leopards?

LJ: Although snow leopards are the “king” of the mountain ecosystem, they are not as fierce as other big carnivores, and they very rarely attack human beings. Based on my own encounters with snow leopards, and hundreds of interviews with local herders, these cats seem to have gentle temperaments.

OSM: It seems appropriate that of all the big cats, the one that lives with monks would be gentler than the rest!  Maybe they are Buddhist!

LJ: Perhaps!

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