High Altitudes

Other Threats

Other Range States

Like the Indian part of the terrain, the other range states featuring fragile high altitude ecosystems are also those witnessing sweeping economic development. It is arguable that basic infrastructure needs to be strengthened in these areas but carried out on a large scale it can cause irreversible damage. An ecological cost to benefit analysis is essential here. For example, building roads and excavating the terrain will support mining for metals, a rich natural resource that is available in abundance. But they will inevitably lead to large scale - and irreversible - ecological devastation. The costs are long term; and irreparable.

As in the Indian range, the other challenge is the illegal trade in snow leopard skin and body parts. According to an estimate, one snow leopard is killed every day to cater to the demand. But little is understood of the dynamics of this illegal trade that is managed on a global scale.

Over dependence on pastures and overgrazing are another source of concern. This is a direct consequence of the heavy economic dependence of the communities in the region on livestock rearing. Livestock are an economic imperative; they also provide a guarantee of food. However, the rearing of increased numbers of livestock has placed an ecological pressure on the quality and extent of the pastures. In turn, it affects the quality and extent of pasture available to the wildlife species that likewise depend on them.

In this shared ecosystem, conflicts between snow leopards and human communities can be a frequent occurrence with leopards preying on domestic livestock and causing economic loss. In the process, snow leopards become vulnerable to retaliatory killings.

Weather events are another source of threat to the ecosystems. Dzuds, for instance, or zuds - Mongolian term for extreme winter - are also becoming a major concern. Parts of Central and East-Central Asia are vulnerable to weather conditions that result from a combination of summer drought, heavy snowfall, and high winds. These are often followed by extremely low winter temperatures in which animal survival becomes a big challenge. Such weather events lead to livestock mortality on a mass scale and contingent economic losses for the communities.

The sudden outbreak of disease is another calamity that can trigger large scale deaths of wildlife within a short period. A mysterious bacteria-borne disease wiped out more than half of the Saiga population of the world - about 200,000 members of the species - in 2015. Saiga is a critically endangered antelope species found in parts of Russia and Kazakhstan. The bacteria are normally symbiotic with the Saiga and are benign colonisers of the large nasal passages of the animal, and are present even at birth. Their numbers are usually in check and the symbionts enjoy mutual evolutionary advantages. However, in the 2015 episode, unseasonably warm and humid conditions seemed to have caused a spurt in the numbers of the bacteria which eventually overwhelmed the animals. This could be an ecological consequence of climate change and it is important to keep a watch on the potential threat such episodes could have on wildlife populations in these regions. One major fallout of this kind of reckoning is that the snow leopard is emblematic - it represents in a big way - the health of the central Asian ecosphere and has implications for the health of a very large part of the earth.