From: Dr Charudutt Mishra, The Ecologist, More from this Affiliate
Published September 19, 2013 06:32 AM

Snow Leopard Survival Threatened by Cashmere Industry

As London Fashion Week concludes, Dr Charudutt Mishra explains how demand for cashmere is affecting Central Asian wildlife, and how enlisting the support of local people will be essential for the future of snow leopard conservation.

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The mountains of Central Asia are where the endangered snow leopards live. The higher Himalayas, the Pamirs, the Tien Shan, the Altai, all remote and faraway, seemingly insulated from our consumerist lifestyles. Indeed, the main causes of the cat's endangerment appear to arise largely from local activities - persecution in retaliation against predation on livestock, for instance. Understandable, as livestock continues to remain a precious resource for people in these climatically and topographically harsh mountain landscapes.

Living thousands of miles away, it is difficult to imagine that our daily choices, literally the clothes we choose to wear, are shaping the chances of survival - or extinction - of the snow leopard and several other species of the Central Asian mountains.

The surging global demand for cashmere, that wonderful soft and warm fibre, is compromising the survival prospects of the snow leopard, the saiga, and a host of other iconic species of the Himalayas and Central Asia. Yet, the same fashion industry is also bringing better livelihood opportunities for local people, our biggest partners and hope for wildlife conservation in these mountains. It sounds complex, and it is complex.

What exactly is going on, and what do we do?

In a recent paper I co-authored with my friend Joel Berger and our Mongolian colleague Buuveibaatar, we have tried to explore the complex pathways through which the largely Western demand for cashmere is affecting Central Asian wildlife. Cashmere is derived from the lightweight under hair of domestic goats, and the bulk of the global production comes from snow leopard landscapes of Central Asia.

Supplying the increasing global demand for cashmere is met with by increasing the goat population. So across large parts of Central Asia, we see an ongoing escalation of livestock populations, and changes in herd composition in favour of goats. Mongolia alone has seen an increase in its livestock population from approximately five million in 1990 to 14 million in 2010.

As domestic herds grow, they consume the bulk of the forage available in the mountain pastures, leaving behind inadequate food for the several species of wild herbivores that inhabit these mountains and arid zones that we have worked in. These include many wild relatives of livestock, such as the ibex, the blue sheep, and the argali that constitute an important genetic resource, in addition to being the natural prey species of the snow leopard and other predators such as the wolf.

Continue reading at ENN affiliate, The Ecologist.

Snow leopard image via Shutterstock.

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