In Search of the Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
The now across the river glows, and the rocks and peaks, the serpentine black stream, and snows, sky, stars, the firmament—all ring like the bell of the universal Buddha.
In the Himalayas, Buddhist monasteries are saving snow leopards. Monks, who base their actions on the Buddhist teachings of interdependence and compassion for animals, are the leaders of this socially engaged movement, committed to the environmental sustainability of the Tibetan plateau’s unique wildlife. Snow leopards are a rare sight in the twelve countries they reside, including India, Bhutan, Nepal and China, and are increasingly threatened by habitat degradation, loss of prey and poaching. The monks’ response has been to monitor the areas around their monasteries, guarding the big cats against hunters seeking to make a profit.
The illegal wildlife trade is an enduring threat to the snow leopard. Snow leopard pelts and bones are extremely valuable: a local herder might be paid $100 for them, yet on the black market, they can sell for over $10,000. The collection of animal parts for use in traditional medicine has brought some species to the brink of extinction. Here, traditions and environmentalism clash heads, as snow leopards, tigers, rhinoceros and other vulnerable species are poached for their body parts, believed by some to have healing properties, and are sold in “medicine markets.”
Snow leopards are also hunted by nomadic herders, seeking retribution for slaughter livestock, on which their livelihood depends. The snow leopard’s natural prey, which includes wild sheep, ibex and goat-antelope, has become less abundant as their habitat is converted into farmland. The normally wary leopards are forced to come nearer to human communities, hunting yaks, goats and sheep. Pastoralist cultures rely on these animals: sheep’s wool is woven into intricate rugs, and the daily drinking ritual of yak butter tea remains an integral part of Tibetan life. To counter this reaction, monks have begun a livestock insurance program to help alleviate the economic impact of losing livestock. “The monks put their own money and effort in to create this program. Now the individual herders can insure their yaks for just a few pennies each, and if any of them are killed by a snow leopard, then they’re compensated for that out of the insurance proceed” (McCarthy, 2013). Since it’s setup, there have been no killing of snow leopards in the villages where the program runs.
Encroaching mining, damming and logging industries are threatening pastoralist Tibetan communities and the biodiversity of this landscape. The habitats of snow leopards are being fragmented due to human development, and climate change threatens to “leave a third of their habitat uninhabitable as the tree line shifts up to the mountains and causes farmers to plant crops and graze livestock at higher altitudes” (Carrington, 2016). The snow leopard ranges over a vast territory of two million square kilometers in central Asia, yet as a result of these threats, the snow leopard population has dropped 20% in the last twenty years, and there are only an estimated 4,080-6,590 left in the wild.
Snow leopards are elusive, referred to by Himalayan locals as “ghosts of the mountains,” and their territory covers a vast, rocky span of mountains above 11,000 feet in elevation. These protected areas are difficult to adequately patrol, and there is often not enough government funding to hire people for the task. There are “four times as many monasteries as conservation stations…with each monastery protecting its own sacred mountain” (Conniff, 2013). Monks have played a considerable role in keeping snow leopards safe from harm, regularly organizing patrols and identifying snow leopards by their scent markings, droppings and scrapes. Regional population counts of snow leopards give conservation organizations an idea of how quickly the species is declining. Monks are also learning to use motion-sensing camera traps, to capture the rarely-seen snow leopards in photographs.
Monks assemble in the Drepung Monastery. Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons.
The Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve on the Tibetan Plateau, an area of more than 57,000 square miles, contains rich biodiversity and is home to the snow leopard. 76,000 people, mostly herders, occupy the region as well. The surrounding monasteries educate community members on the importance of environmental conservation, “with the Rinpoche, or monastery teacher, routinely discussing the Buddhist edicts concerning reverence for all life…Many locals swore an oath to their Rinpoche every year not to kill wildlife” (Conniff, 2013). Buddhist environmental education provides these communities with a stronger conservation ethic to protect their lands and wildlife. The monasteries’ doctrine of nonviolence strongly influences local societies to refrain from harming snow leopards, as 80% of the people living in the leopard’s range are Buddhist. In addition, monasteries hold festivals every year which draw up to 50,000 people, who come to worship amidst yak races and masked dances. Senior monks have begun handing out informational flyers asking visitors to take a life-long pledge to save snow leopards. “So, the monks have helped in a number of ways. They help by enforcing, they help by preaching their religion and their love for all life, and they help by setting up these economic programs that help people when they are impacted by snow leopards” (McCarthy, 2013).
Snow leopard conservation has now expanded to hundreds of monasteries all over Tibet. While the monks’ work has been essential, they have been met with challenges. For instance, stray dogs that are sheltered at Buddhist monasteries prey upon wild Himalayan blue sheep (bharal), one of the snow leopard’s sources of food. The monks are simply following their ideology of compassion for all living beings in need, and so continue to take the dogs in. Additionally, though the Tibetan monks’ influence is wide, they would like to be given greater autonomy for the protection of snow leopards. This would include being given official rights by the government, so they could legally evict poachers from their land. Local agreements to this effect have been made in many communities.
It is necessary for countries and conservation scientists to recognize the influence of Tibetan monks and the ideologies of Buddhism in the snow leopard conservation effort and take their lead. It is also paramount that people understand that traditional knowledge holds important lessons about the preservation of land and conservation species. Dr. Lu Zhi, director of a leading conservation NGO in China, supports the idea of community-managed nature reserves:
With Buddhist education, Tibetan people have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. Now like everywhere else, the traditional culture on the Plateau is facing the challenge of modernization. Conservationists should work closer with social institutions, integrating scientific methodologies with cultural approaches for better solutions. (Noras, 2013).
Scientists are beginning to seek out existing conservation methods in traditional societies. In the documentary “Shielding the Mountains,” Chime Namgyal emphasizes that we have a tendency to ignore indigenous knowledge when it comes to environmental protection. Traditional ways of life could not exist without reliance on the natural environment, and so protecting the earth has always been at the core of these societies values and lifestyle. If applied on a larger scale, indigenous solutions could help solve various environmental crises throughout the world. We must look to the past in order to conserve the future, as “sacred lands probably offer one of the oldest forms of habitat protection and are important repositories of biodiversity” (Li, 2013). Communities with an intimate connection to the history, culture and land of a region, such as the Tibetan monks’ tie to the sacred mountains, should be viewed as sources of environmental knowledge. In addition, it is imperative that local, sustainable initiatives be supported in order to protect resident species. Saving the snow leopard by upholding the Buddhist tenets of love and respect for all beings is one step in this direction.
Carrington, Damian. “Hundreds of Snow Leopards Being Killed Every Year.” The Guardian. 2016.
Conniff, Richard. “Holy Help: Buddhist Monks Shielding Snow Leopards from Poachers.” TakePart. 2013.
Kaza, Stephanie. Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism. Shambhala. 2000.
Li. “Role of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries in Snow Leopard Conservation.” Conservation Biology. 2013.
McCarthy, Tom. “Buddhist Monks Help Save Snow Leopards.” Public Radio International. 2013.
Noras, Sibylle. “Monks in Tibetan monasteries help snow leopards.” Saving Snow Leopards. 2015.
Yeh, Emily. Shielding the Mountains. Documentary. 2010.