Killing livestock creates conflict between top predators and communities that graze animals. This presents a major challenge for conserving snow leopards, which are endangered, and Himalayan wolves, which are rare. These wolves prefer the open grasslands and alpine meadows that are also frequented by pastoral herders, and snow leopards prefer the steep terrain associated with mountainous pastures. To assess the prey preferences of these carnivores, Madhu Chetri from the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Norway, and colleagues analyzed DNA and hairs in 182 snow leopard droppings and 57 wolf droppings collected in the central Himalayas, Nepal.
Chetri answered some questions about his recently published PLOS ONE study below.
What first sparked your interest in science?
MC: I grew up in the countryside, and I spent most of my childhood days in the woods. Since then, I have been attracted to nature and fascinated by wild animals. This magnetic pull led me to study science.
What drew you to studying the diets of snow leopards and wolves in the Himalayas?
MC: More than a decade of work experience in the Himalayas revealed that endangered snow leopards and rare wolves — the two top predators — are always considered to be a threat by the pastoral communities and blamed for livestock losses. Since diet studies can explain the real situation, I became more interested. Studying their diets also helps understand food choice and preferences as well as the abundance and status of their prey, which are both essential for formulating long-term conservation strategies.
You found that livestock comprised around a quarter of the Himalayan snow leopard and wolf diet. Was this a smaller or larger portion of their diet than you expected?
MC: Around a quarter of the snow leopard and wolf diet is much less than expected. The complaints from pastoral communities regarding livestock losses are common, suggesting that livestock would comprise a larger portion of these predators’ diets. Also site-specific losses are highly variable.
What implications do your findings have for conservation of snow leopards and wolves?
MC: The present findings are a part of the larger ongoing research on snow leopard ecology in the central Himalayas. The main aim was to investigate the abundance, food choice and preferences, and evaluate the level of conflicts. When these are all integrated, the final outcome will provide meaningful conservation implications for the long-term survival of the snow leopards, wolves and their prey species.
Are there any limitations to your study?
MC: The main limitation of our study is the location of grid cells. A random or systematic selection of sampling grid cells was not feasible due to geographical, cultural and logistical constraints.
What are the next steps for your research?
MC: Although livestock constitutes a substantial proportion of the predators’ diets, little is known about the actual predation impact on the pastoral communities. Hence, the forthcoming work focuses on estimating livestock mortality rates and identifying factors associated with livestock loss. It will also evaluate snow leopard abundance and distribution in the central Himalayas.
Citation: Chetri M, Odden M, Wegge P (2017) Snow Leopard and Himalayan Wolf: Food Habits and Prey Selection in the Central Himalayas, Nepal. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0170549. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0170549
Image Credit: Madhu Chetri