Tibetan Buddhist monasteries benefit snow leopard conservation, study finds

Snow Leopard Relaxed by Eric Kilby

Tibetan Buddhists monasteries are playing a crucial role in the conservation of the snow leopard, according to a study recently published in the journal Conservation Biology.

Poaching, lack of prey, loss of habitat, and vengeful killing have decimated the snow leopard population across the alpine ecosystem. The once plentiful species now only appears scattered throughout the rocky mountains of twelve countries in Central Asia.

Chinese researchers from Peking University analyzed almost the entire Sanjiangyuan Region in Central Asia, covering about 360,000 km2 in order to find out how this culture that is dominated by respect for all living things could potentially save this fading species.

Led by Dr. Li Juan, the researchers surveyed the areas of snow leopard habitat and mapped the distribution across the region, locating where these habitats overlap with Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries. They also interviewed local herders and monastery leaders to gain information about what is currently being done to protect this species that has been endangered for over 40 years.

In attempt to conserve the snow leopard population, governments across these select countries have established  natural reserves, but these areas only cover about a quarter of the estimated snow leopard habitat. Other difficulties in conservation efforts arise in the form of harsh environment, vast range of territory and minor local resistance.   

Fortunately, there is still hope for the snow leopard population. Chinese researchers found that out of 81 monasteries surveyed, 90% were located within 5 km of the snow leopard habitat while about half were within the snow leopard habitat.

With this information, they calculated the area of snow leopard habitat as well as the area of sacred land each monastery resides in.

Using their model, the total monasteries are estimated to protect over 8000 km2, which is larger than the areas covered by the core zones of the Sanjiangyuan Natural Reserve.

With this large overlap of sacred land and snow leopard habitat, there is much optimism about what is to come for this species. This coalition with snow leopards and Tibetan Buddhists has the potential to work well for a number of reasons.

Primarily, the beliefs of Buddhism coincide with those of people advocating conservation of biodiversity. The practice of love, respect, and compassion to all living things will aid in the recovery of the species.

During interviews, they found that the monasteries were not only guarding the sacred mountain, but also educating the native communities about how to protect the environment.

Chinese researchers also interviewed local herders about their attitudes toward snow leopard conservation. They found that of the 144 people 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.

They also found that  high ranking monks such as senior Rinpoche and Khenpos have a strong influence on the views of their followers. This has the potential to change local attitudes and behavior toward protecting the wildlife in the region.

Since 2009 cooperative programs for snow leopard conservation have started in 4 monasteries and there will most likely be more started in the near future.

Monasteries working with local government and other organizations will benefit conservation, as well as introducing management rights. This would give monasteries legal rights to stop misconduct at their holy sites.

Eighty percent of the range of the snow leopards habitat overlaps with regions of Tibetan Buddhism influence, so there looks to be much change in the ways of conservation for the snow leopard as well as other wildlife in the region.


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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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