Saturday, March 25, 2006

Panthera News: A good day indeed...

Not one, but two positive news reports about big cat conservation in Asia.

First, news about a subspecies I've had the great privilege to experience in life:

Asiatic Lions to get new Sanctuary at Jesar
Friday 24 March 2006

In a major step, the state government has decided to set up a new lion sanctuary at Jesar hills in the Bhavnagar-Amreli forests to ensure better conservation of the Asiatic lions of Gir.

The new location is on the eastern side of Gir sanctuary. A team of senior forest officials are in the process of demarcating 100 sq km area in the forest range of Bhavnagar and Amreli bordering Mitiala area.

A small wildlife sanctuary was created in Mitiala in 2004 following increasing congestion of wild animals in Gir. At present, more than 50 lions have made Mitiala and its surrounding areas their home. Once the new sanctuary comes up, it could provide a natural habitat to at least 100 lions.

The Gir sanctuary area has over 359 lions and 999 leopards at present. The state government decided on creating a new sanctuary after the alarming number of lion deaths - at least 100 in the last four years. Plus, continuous pressure from the Central government to shift the lion sanctuary to Madhya Pradesh for better conservation spurred the state authorities into action.

When contacted, state chief conservation of forest (wildlife) Pradeep Khanna admitted that the proposed new sanctuary would provide more space to the lions who have started coming out of the sanctuary area in search of new natural habitat. "We therefore decided to set up a new sanctuary for lions somewhere near Jesar," he said.

Well, obviously this has been a long time coming - they were talking about it over three years ago when I was filming in Gir. One wonders why it took the death of 100 lions to finally spur them into action. Losing just one or two individuals from this precious population should have been reason enough to set up the new sanctuary - inbreeding and a fragile gene pool being the main culprits for disease, cub mortality and weakened immune systems.

I recall they were also planning on demarcating a much larger sanctuary nearer the northern parts of Gujarat. Not sure about the progress of that - but Jesar is a start.

And now news about a species I've only dreamed of experiencing in the wild (sigh):

Villagers Encouraged To Protect Snow Leopards
Friday 24 March 2006

To impoverished residents of areas inhabited by snow leopards, protecting the animal may seem like an unaffordable luxury. But in Kyrgyzstan, some communities are deeply involved in a conservation program offering financial incentives to people who help snow leopards.

The habitat of snow leopards covers 12 countries - including Afghanistan, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Although the animal is legally protected throughout this area, only about 7,000 are thought to still survive in the wild. More than half of them are in China.

Snow leopards are killed for their fur and for their bones - which are used in traditional Asian medicine. They also are killed in retaliation for preying on livestock. Amankul Bikenov, from the Almaty Institute of Zoology in Kazakhstan, says that the animal also suffers because of the disappearance of its normal prey.

"In our territory there are only 250 to 300 snow leopards," Bikenov says. "What we do is try to locate and preserve them in special national parks. But despite these measures, their numbers are dwindling. It can be explained by the decrease of other species they use as food, such as Marco Polo sheep, wild goats, and others."

Almaz Musaev is the head of the hunting department at the Kyrgyz Environmental Protection and Forestry Agency. He says fewer than 300 snow leopards still survive in Kyrgyzstan. Musaev suggests a large-scale public awareness campaign is needed to help protect them.

"Our previous activities to protect the snow leopards have been insufficient," Musaev says. "Because there is a need to make every Kyrgyz citizen aware of the situation, we need to hold the leopards in high respect as the Indians deify the cow there. Without such actions, the work of our few staffers will fail."

Musaev also concedes that the issue cannot be resolved without the help of the international community.

At Akshiyrak and Engilchek, two villages In Kyrgyzstan's Issykkul region, a U.S.-based organization called the Snow Leopard Trust is trying to help people increase their household income in a way that also helps protect snow leopards and their habitat.

Together with local partners, the Snow Leopard Trust provides herders with training and equipment to produce handicrafts using wool from their livestock. These products are marketed at stores in the United States and through the Snow Leopard Trust's website.

In return, participating communities agree not to kill snow leopards or the wild animals that they eat. If even one person violates the contract, the entire community loses a cash bonus made available at the end of each year.

The Snow Leopard Trust's Tom McCarthy says that handicraft sales allow some families to nearly double their annual income - and that is without taking into account the bonuses.

"Their average annual income just from the handicraft sales is about $145," McCarthy says. "And they might only lose one or two livestock a year to snow leopards. They're very happy, then, not to kill those animals in exchange for keeping this handicraft project going."

McCarthy says the project model has been successful so far. He says his organization expects to expand the program to include other Kyrgyz villages later this year.

But he says it is sometimes difficult to measure the program's impact on the snow leopards' population.

In order to establish the current status of snow leopards and to determine where they live, the Snow Leopard Trust has helped fund a study in both Kyrgyzstan and China's Xinjiang region.

Scientists last year placed cameras with infrared detectors in the remote Tien Shan Mountains along the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. During several weeks, the cameras took 13 pictures of snow leopards on the Kyrgyz side of the mountains and 40 on the Chinese side. Samples of snow leopard faeces also were collected.

But Ma Ming of China's Xinjiang Institute of Ecology in the regional capital, Urumqi, says that its too early to determine the exact number of snow leopards there.

"In China we put the cameras in very good places and took many pictures," Ma said. "But this doesn't mean the Chinese population of snow leopards is big. It is too early. We must do research, we must continue the hard work."

The photographs are now being studied to see how many different leopards can be identified. Meanwhile, the faeces samples have been sent to genetic laboratories for analysis. Scientists hope the data will provide a better idea of how many snow leopards are still alive - and where they are living.

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