Scientists Discover Protected Areas Are Too Small For Snow Leopard Survival
Known as the “ghost of the mountain”, snow leopards are secretive, few in number, surviving on the craggy, high-altitude habitats of Central Asia that can be dangerous for humans. For decades, it was difficult to study these endangered felines but now, technology advances have given scientists a solid glimpse, leading to one of the most robust studies conducted thus far.
From 2007 to 2014, researchers working in the Tost Mountains of South Gobi, Mongolia, fitted 16 snow leopards with GPS collars. For over a year, the collars logged each cat’s location about four times a day.
Scientists from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Snow Leopard Trust, Panthera, and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation have collaborated in collecting and analyzing data. Now, after years of research, the results have been shared with the scientific community. Published on September 21 in the journal Biological Conservation, a new scientific report has confirmed that the species is running out of room to survive.
Nearly 40% of all protected areas across its range is too small to support even a pair of breeding snow leopards. Out of the 170 protected areas throughout Asia, only eight are estimated to maintain the space required to support 50 or more breeding females. Less than 15%, and as likely as few as 3-4% are large enough to host a small population of 15 breeding females.
Study leader Örjan Johansson, a Ph.D. student at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, stated “Previous studies had mostly assumed smaller home ranges, and of course that influences everything from population estimates to conservation strategies.” However, “These findings underline that we need a lot more information on the snow leopard.”
Data suggested that the snow leopards require enormous home ranges, on average, about 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) for males and 50 square miles (130 square kilometers) for females. That means a single adult male leopard must roam over an area larger than the Caribbean island of Aruba in search of food and mates.
“Our results show that snow leopards have a substantially larger spatial need than previously thought,” explains Johansson. “These home ranges are between 6 and 44 times larger than what earlier studies had reported. The largest home range we’ve seen was more than 1,000 square kilometers.”
Unlike the big cats, like the African lions, that live in areas of great prey abundance, snow leopards live in 12 mountainous countries where large prey is few and far between. Due to the lack of prey abundance, these animals must roam distances between each meal in search for their next meal, a Siberian ibex, Argali sheep, or sometimes domestic goats.
However, preying on the goats causes conflict with the herders and as a response, the people hunt the predators. Other than the lack of habitat, retaliatory killings are one of the snow leopard’s main threats, according to IUCN.
The study also revealed that snow leopards are extremely territorial with very little overlap in home ranges of adult cats of the same sex. With this new data, Johansson and colleagues discovered that 40% of the 170 protected areas are smaller than the space required by one adult male.
Even if the range estimates are divided in half, only 22% could support 15 females, the number required for a population to withstand the rate at which snow leopards are killed by herders.
These findings underscore the importance of community-based, conflict mitigation-focused conservation approaches extending beyond protected areas.
“Forty percent of these protected areas are smaller than an average male home range – so they’re too small to host even one breeding pair of snow leopards,” states Johansson. “This means that any cats living in these areas will also regularly use surrounding areas that are unprotected. We can’t simply assume they’re safe and sound just because their habitat falls within a protected area.”
He continues with “the protected area system cannot provide enough connected habitats to allow for this. Even under the most generous model of how many cats can fit into an area, there are only eight existing protected areas that could fit 50 or more breeding females right now.”
Independent zoologist Katey Duffey describes the new study’s findings as ‘very convincing’, especially with the use of GPS to study this elusive species.
Dr. Tom McCarthy, executive director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program and co-author of the study, comments in on the importance of using GPS instead of the outdated, less accurate scientific research methods, including ground-based, handheld VHF tracking.
“Our decision to use only cutting-edge technologies in this study is validated by the quantity and quality of the data gained, which in turn provides us the knowledge needed to adequately protect snow leopards.”
Cape Fur Seal Trade Persists Despite the Push to End It
Namibian Sunshine isn’t what one might think it is. It is oil from the blubber of the Cap fur seal, advertised online as rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and “more readily absorbed” by the human body than fish oil. Since 2005, Namibia has exported almost 33,000 gallons of this sunshine, nearly a third to China.
However, the export of seal pelts dwarfs Namibia’s seal oil business. Exporting over 400,000 in the past decade, it is one of the largest trades in this industry of any mammal out of Africa. Most arrive in Turkey, where fashion mogul Hatem Yavuz turns them into “wild fur” coats. According to Seven Network, Yavuz controls 60% of the global market in seal products.
In a Whatsapp phone call from his home in Istanbul, he says it takes seven pelts to make a man’s seal coat, which can sell for between $3,000 and $30,00. His main market? China and Russia.
Greece was also recently an importer of seal skins from Namibia. But in 2010, the EU banned imports of seal-derived products in response to public outrage over the way seal pups are clubbed to death or “harvested”. Now, more than 35 countries have now banned products of commercial seal hunts, including the United States, the EU, and Taiwan.
Humane Society International says, “global markets for seal products are closing fast”.
Namibia, Canada, and Greenland are the last places where seals are harvested commercially. Held in Canada is the world’s largest marine mammal hunt, with ~350,000 harp seals taken each year. Namibia has set an annual hunt quota of 80,000 Cape fur seal pups and 6,000 bulls. Hunting season lasts from July through November.
Cape fur seals are found in the waters off southwestern and southern Africa, estimated to number approximately 1.7 million. More than half are in Namibia, with the rest in Angola and South Africa. The later has listed the seal as a protected species in 1973 under the Sea Birds and Seals Protection Act and banned commercial seal harvests in 1990. Though it isn’t threatened with extinction, the seals remain listed by CITES due to the potential effects if their trade is not closely monitored and controlled.
Moreover, Pat Dickens of Seals of Nam, a Namibian nonprofit founded with the goal to end the country’s sealing industry, argues that “If CITES is serious about improving animal welfare standards in trade, then it really should raise the issue of the Namibian seal hunt.” He has initiated an online petition calling for the Cape fur seal trade to be blacklisted due to the inhumane harvesting methods, the harm harvests do to seal populations, and lack of transparency in the sealing business.
Yavuz, as Namibia’s main sealing concessionaire, pays royalties to the government for his allotted portion. With connections running deep, he helped finance a seal processing plant in Henties Bay and was named Honorary Consul for Namibia in Turkey in 2010.
The sea pups’ soft skin are often used for coats, but the bulls are killed for their penises, or hai gou shen. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that it improves virility. According to Yavuz, they sell for approximately $2,000 a pound.
The customary method to kill the pups is to knock them unconscious with a heavy wooden club, then piercing their heart with a pick or knife to kill. But killing a Cape fur seal is a difficult task. “Its agility on land means that when you’re taking a swing at it, it takes evasive actions,” describes Pat Dickens. “Clubbing nursing pups in large social colonies is unlikely to be swift and accurate and is extremely stressful.”
On the other hand, adult seals are shot in the head. “I have 126 rifles on site,” mentions Yavuz. “Their accuracy is over 86 percent. They’re Boers and Angola war veterans, so great shooters.”
In 2010, on the basis of footage of Namibian seal hunts made by filmmaker Bart Smithers, David Lavigne and Stephen Kirkman asserted that the hunts failed to follow the “three-step” killing process.
In 2012, John Walters, who was charged with defending human rights, including in the context of environmental protection, looked into complaints against the seal hunts by civil society organizations, NGOs, and individuals. Though he acknowledged that the moving targets make accurate hits difficult, Walters rationalized that the Animal Protection Act did not apply to these seals. The seals were moving away from the hunters and aren’t “under the control of any person”; therefore, they aren’t protected by the act.
Despite outcry from organizations, Walters concluded that clubbing remains the most practical way to kill the pups while a rifle shot to the head is the ideal method to kill adult bulls. Yavuz responded almost verbatim that other methods, such as sound bombs, have been unsuccessful and that “clubbing and shooting remain the best methods of killing.”
This hunting practice began as early as the 1600s when Dutch settlers killed the seals for their skins and oil. By the 20th century, they were extirpated from most of their breeding colonies, limited to small, relatively inaccessible islands. Since then, harvests have been legally controlled with designated seasons set. As a result, the seals recovered, although they’ve been displaced to the mainland due to human activities on islands.
However, sealers target larger pups, allowing the smaller, thinner ones to get away. This can weaken the long-term genetic vigor of the hunted populations.
One anonymous South African biologist who has studied Cape fur seals for several decades believes that the quota is “way too high for a sustainable industry. The quota is set on the basis of the size of the entire population, but only two colonies are harvested. The high quotas for pups mean that very few, if any, can survive in typical years at these two colonies.”
However, fishermen view the seals as competition for commercially valuable species like mackerel, sardines, anchovies, hake, and herring. Seals are known to snatch fish off the fishing lines and sometimes damage their gear in order to remove the fish. But Kirkman says seals typically just take the “stickers—fish sticking through the net.”
Patti Wickens, prior to becoming De Beers’ s environmental spokesperson, conducted studies two decades ago concluding that the seals had negligible effects on the fishing industry.
“If you took all of Namibia’s seal colonies and created a super colony, it would stretch a mere 11 miles of coastline,” says Seals of Nam’s Dickens. “How can seals destroy your fishing industry when your coastline is over 900 miles long?”
According to Kirkman, Namibia’s fishing industry may be hurting the seals more than the other way around. As one of the authors of the update on conservation status of the Cape fur seal, he describes the main threats to the seals are drowning in fishing nets, illegal killing by fishermen, and deadly entanglements in marine debris.
Despite the worldwide trend against sealing, the country’s industry is far form shrinking. The new Lüderitz seal-processing plant is described as an “empowerment project” that will generate jobs, support young entrepreneurs, and contribute to the local economy. It is expected to be able to process 40,000 seals a year, including their skins, oil, and meat. An environmental impact assessment of the plant reported that little information has been provided about the chemicals that will be used in the plant, which could expose potential risks to people and the environment.
To replace the industry would be seal-watching tourism, which could generate 300% more revenue and jobs than seal hunting.
“Seals may not be as popular as whales, dolphins, or sharks, but seeing a colony is guaranteed,” Kirkman argues. “You can be sure that a whale or dolphin-watching operator will include a spin to the seal colony in their tour, as they then never have a situation where their customers come away with having seen nothing. Most people are quite satisfied after seeing a seal colony.”
Monica Taylor runs a company called Offshore Adventures, out of Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, that offers swimming with seals. Since January 2011, around 10,000 people have swum with seals. For three consecutive years Offshore Adventures has won the prestigious Wessa blue flag, an international award for environmental excellence.
“There’s no better way of conducting environmental education and awareness than through experiences like these,” Taylor says. “Swimming with seals is the best combination of adventure, animal encounters, and sustainable tourism. Due to their inquisitive nature, we don’t have to chase after them or feed them to interact. They’re golden retriever puppies in wetsuits.”
Though seal-based tourism could be the best solution for Namibia and the Cape fur seals, time has yet to tell which of the vested interests will prevail.