|dc.description.abstracteng||The world is currently facing an accelerated loss of biodiversity, which is considered a human-induced mass extinction. Large carnivores face a multitude of anthropogenic threats and are particularly prone to local extirpation due to their biological traits, including low reproductive rates and large spatial requirements. These animals play key ecological roles at the top of natural food webs and are of high socio-economic relevance, making their protection a priority in biodiversity conservation. This also applies to the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), which represents a top predator in high-altitude ecosystems of Asia, with only about 3,000 mature individuals remaining in the wild. The snow leopard faces various anthropogenic threats, including habitat loss and degradation, exploitation, wild prey depletion, and retaliatory killings as a consequence of livestock depredation. Addressing these threats requires intensive efforts at both international and local levels as snow leopards occupy vast spatial ranges in fragile and remote landscapes where livestock depredation poses a major obstacle to co-existence with local communities. Moreover, cryptic behaviour, low population densities, and hardly accessible terrain make population monitoring challenging, limiting the understanding of interactions between snow leopards, their wild prey, livestock, and humans, and, hence, impeding prioritisation of management actions.
The aims of this dissertation were to evaluate the performance of current conservation and management measures targeting the snow leopard and its high-altitude ecosystems and to generate more profound knowledge on relationships between snow leopards, wild prey populations, and livestock husbandry. By deducing relevant conservation implications, I intended to contribute to the preservation of the snow leopard and its natural habitats as well as to the long-term co-existence of this big cat and local communities in high-mountain landscapes of Asia.
Chapter 2 attends to the blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), representing the main wild prey of snow leopards in the Annapurna region and elsewhere. This medium-sized ungulate is considered a common species but is increasingly threatened by anthropogenic activities. In spring and autumn 2019, my colleagues and I walked along transects (262.6 km) to monitor blue sheep in the Manang district of the Annapurna Conservation Area. We applied spatial and multivariate analyses to explore the population status and habitat choice of this ungulate. Total counts yielded minimum blue sheep density estimates of 6.0–7.8 individuals/km2, which are quite high compared to other regions inside and outside the Nepalese Himalaya and roughly fit in the range of estimates in Manang before and after the establishment of this protected area in 1992. According to the applied generalised additive models (GAMs), habitat selection by blue sheep was mainly driven by elevation and vegetation characteristics, while the effects of anthropogenic variables were insignificant. These results suggest that the local blue sheep population has been largely maintained over the past 30 years, which can be interpreted as a preliminary success of the integrated conservation and development approach in the Annapurna Conservation Area. In conclusion, our findings indicate the potential to protect mountain ungulates through integrated management approaches. We suggest establishing a long-term monitoring scheme for blue sheep to allow early detection of population trends as well as potentially time-lagged effects of ongoing tourism development in the Annapurna Conservation Area.
Chapter 3 examines the complex socio-ecological relationships between snow leopards, wild prey populations, livestock, and humans in the high-altitude landscape of the Annapurna region. The project team sampled a total of 82 study units (4 x 4 km cells) in the Annapurna Conservation Area, monitoring wildlife populations and livestock along transects (490.8 km) and conducting extensive questionnaire surveys (n = 479 households) to quantify livestock depredation between 2018 and 2021. The generalised linear models (GLMs) suggested a strong positive effect of blue sheep density on snow leopard relative abundance, which also increased with terrain ruggedness and decreased with increasing densities of livestock and the human population. Marmot presence and increasing human population density were related to lower depredation rates of sheep and goats, which were attacked most frequently (38.5% of depredation events) and represented the majority of killed livestock (68.6%), whereas the size of livestock holdings seemingly shaped depredation rates of large livestock (yak, cattle, horse). The insights obtained from this study stress the crucial role of blue sheep for snow leopard populations and highlight the importance of integrating wild prey recovery into conservation and management plans. They also suggest that increasing wild prey abundance would neither solve nor inflict human-snow leopard conflicts over livestock depredation. Our findings call for an improvement of currently applied intervention strategies (e.g., predator-proofing corrals and optimising daytime herding practices) and further exploring the effects of secondary prey like marmots and additional interventions as mitigation tools. This work extends previous knowledge on the significance of wild ungulates for snow leopard populations and their effects on livestock depredation patterns, supporting wildlife managers in setting conservation priorities to promote the long-term co-existence of snow leopards and local communities.
Chapter 4 focuses on patterns of livestock depredation attributed to snow leopards and analyses the effects of husbandry practices and applied intervention strategies on reported depredation rates. In 2020, my colleagues conducted detailed interviews with 329 livestock owners living in the Manang and Mustang districts of the Annapurna Conservation Area. I applied Jacob’s selectivity index, sample comparison tests, and multivariate models to investigate spatio-temporal variation in depredation, assess the vulnerability of different livestock species and groups, examine the potential effects of intervention strategies, and identify husbandry practices associated with depredation over the past two years. The respondents reported snow leopard depredation to cause an estimated annual loss of 3.2–3.6% of livestock heads and to be a major cause of livestock mortality in both regions (25.4–39.8% of all deaths). Corralling during night-time and herding during daytime were the main but inconsistently applied intervention strategies, and these were not associated with decreases in reported livestock losses. However, some models indicated the potential of dogs, deterrents (light, dung burning, music playing, and flapping tape), and applications of multiple interventions to reduce night-time depredation of yaks. To validate our findings, we suggest conducting controlled randomised experiments to measure the effectiveness of these intervention strategies quantitatively. Finally, the application of the most effective and practical interventions has the potential to contribute to the long-term co-existence of snow leopards and humans in the Annapurna region and beyond.
In conclusion, this PhD project in the Nepalese Himalaya extended previous evidence on interactions between snow leopards, wild prey populations, livestock, and humans, providing relevant implications for the management and conservation of snow leopards and other mountain wildlife. First, it indicated a potential to preserve relatively high wild ungulate densities in mountain landscapes when integrating conservation and development agendas. Second, it confirmed a strong positive impact of blue sheep on snow leopard abundance, highlighting the importance of protecting this wild prey base, especially considering the limited effects observed on livestock depredation. Third, it showed an urgent need to improve the main intervention strategies and further explore additional ones to lay the foundation of human-snow leopard co-existence. Based on these findings, we recommend establishing regular monitoring schemes in the Annapurna Conservation Area, as well as elsewhere, to early detect population declines, assess the effects of conservation measures, and guide future management of snow leopards and other wildlife in high-mountain ecosystems.||de