Culture Causes Conservation- snow leopards protected by Buddhist monasteries

Snow Leopard

All beautiful and striking animals seem destined to be endangered nowadays—including the snow leopard. These exotic creatures rarely make an appearance for anyone anymore. Tragedies including loss of habitat, poaching and lack of prey are the main causes of their downfall. Though they span across 13 countries in Central Asia, their numbers are decreasing and local conservation efforts just aren’t enough.

Researchers at Peking University in Beijing, China bring good news—there is still hope for the snow leopard all thanks to…Buddhism? That’s right. According to a recent study, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries play a crucial role to the conservation of the snow leopard. Don’t mess with the snow leopards, unless you want to be having a word with these Tibetan Buddhists. Though they are not violent, they patrol their sacred land and regularly report illegal activity to local authorities. The Tibetan Buddhists practice love, compassion and respect toward all living creatures, including the snow leopard. This makes them an ideal guardian for this endangered species.

To find out specifically how much protection these monasteries can offer, Chinese researchers surveyed land all across the Tibetan Plateau region. To create the distribution of snow leopards, they first had to track where they were most likely to be found.  Doing so required talking to local hunters as well as playing the role of Nancy Drew—searching for signs of the snow leopard, whether that was feces marks or scent, and recording them with GPS. They were then able to create a map of these endangered animals scattered throughout the rocky mountains of these countries. Once recorded, they documented 81 monasteries through the Tibetan Plateau area and created a distribution of those as well. When overlapped, the researchers discovered that based on their model, over 80% of snow leopard habitat is covered in the same area influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

The next part of their study includes interviews of both leaders within the monasteries and local herders in the area. They found that of the 144 locals interviewed about killing wildlife, 47% did not kill because it was against the law, 42% did not because it was against Buddhism, and 28% did not because they did not have a gun. That may not seem hopeful, considering over a quarter interviewed would have killed wildlife if they had a gun, but there is better news on the way. According to interviews, monasteries regulate patrols, educated communities and instill beliefs in local people to take pride in the wildlife in their region.

Why does this matter? Well based on their data, the estimated area of sacred land that overlaps with the snow leopard habitat is greater than the area covered in the core zones of the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve—the larger of the two nature reserves in the study area. This means that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in their everyday practice of love and respect contribute greatly to the conservation of the snow leopard. Without having to do anything out of the ordinary, they can watch over the future survival of the species, which is much better than what is going on with the local governments conservation attempts. Natural reserves cover less than a quarter of the snow leopard habitat and they are incredibly understaffed. Researchers found that the number of staffing and protection was about the equivalent of hiring one guard for the entire Smithsonian—no cameras, alarms, or anything. It is completely unrealistic. Now, monks or designated Buddhist can patrol their sacred mountains—as they normally would—and protect the snow leopard at the same time.

Although a breakthrough in conservation has been made, there is still much to be done before we can let our guard down. Although these monasteries try to educate their community about conservation, they don’t have ecological knowledge and they don’t have official rights to handle their land. Communication between monasteries and local governments and organizations will help out in the conservation effort. However, with the help of these Buddhists acting as guardian angels, the future of these felines seems to be looking bright.


LI, J., WANG, D., YIN, H., ZHAXI, D., JIAGONG, Z., SCHALLER, G. B., MISHRA, C., MCCARTHY, T. M., WANG, H., WU, L., XIAO, L., BASANG, L., ZHANG, Y., ZHOU, Y. and LU, Z. (2013), Role of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries in Snow Leopard Conservation. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12135

By Eric Kilby from USA (Snow Leopard Relaxed) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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