How snow leopard saviour helped protect species by tackling ‘retaliation killings’ in Himalayas

An Indian conservationist who helped save the highly endangered snow leopard by tackling “retaliation killings” in the Himalayas has won a prestigious award from a UK wildlife charity for his pioneering work.

Snow leopards live high in the mountains of central Asia but have suffered huge declines in numbers as climate change melts their icy territory and local villagers hunt them in “retaliation killings” for preying on their livestock.

Dr Charudutt Mishra, executive director of the Snow Leopard Trust, has spent decades working to save the endangered big cat by convincing mountain communities not to kill them.

He has today won the Whitley Gold Award from UK conservation charity the Whitley Fund for Nature.

“If there’s anything that comes close to perfection in nature, it is the snow leopard,” he told i.

Dr Charudutt Mishra is a world expert on snow leopard conservation (Photo: Prasenjeet Yadav / Snow Leopard Trust)

It is thought there are only around 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild, living high up in the Himalayan peaks and Tibetan plateaus that span 12 countries including China, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Dr Mishra established India’s first community schemes to save the snow leopard, focusing on working with villages to discourage retaliatory killings by setting up livestock insurance, and community wildlife reserves.

For example, the trust offers villagers solar lighting and funding for community projects if they hand some of their grazing land back to the wild.

This allows mountainous regions to support more blue sheep and ibex, a snow leopard’s traditional prey.

Snow leopards feed on blue sheep and ibex, but have been known to prey on livestock (Photo: Prasenjeet Yadav / Snow Leopard Trust)

This has changed villagers’ attitudes to snow leopards, he said. “When I first went to that village [in India] I learned about a snow leopard that had recently been killed, and people were so angry they were beating the carcass of this animal for having killed their livestock.

“From that, from being a real pest, now it has a situation of being their most significant assets. They are becoming stewards for snow leopard conservation”.

It is also making a clear difference to snow leopard numbers, Dr Mishra said. “When I first started my conservation work it took me 10 years to see a snow leopard.,” he said.

“I was in the field in early March [this year], in Northern India, and I saw four to five individual snow leopards 11 times over nine days.”

Dr Mishra was presented with his award by Princess Anne at a ceremony in London on Wednesday evening. Sir David Attenborough attended the event by video link.

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