Infrastructure projects imperil snow leopard’s habitat

Report calls for a delicate balance between infrastructure growth & wildlife conservation

Zulfiqar Baig April 15, 2024


Rapid infrastructure development primarily roads is potentially degrading the Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)’s habitat, resulting in disrupting the big cats' movement and increasing human-wildlife conflict in the Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) region. The prey species of the Snow leopard such as Himalayan ibex and domestic livestock are also killed due to heavy traffic on the highways.

This has been revealed in WWF-Pakistan’s baseline research study undertaken through the project titled “Building Ecological and Sustainable Transport/Linear Infrastructure for Snow Leopards in the Hindu Kush Karakoram Himalaya Landscape in Pakistan (BEAST)”.

The project was supported by the With Snow Leopards Small Grant (SLSG) initiated by the Tencent Foundation and the Shan Shui Conservation Centre with support from the Huatai Foundation, the Amity Foundation, and the Pecking University Centre for Nature and Society.

The study recommends that there is a need to strike a balance between boosting infrastructure development and conservation of threatened wildlife such as Snow leopards in the region. The report states that the G-B region is home to diverse wildlife including vulnerable Snow leopards.

It was pointed out that the linear infrastructure development, which cuts through the landscape such as roads, has fragmented the Snow leopard habitat. The report found that although linear infrastructure improves national and regional economies, it restricts wildlife movement and poses a threat to the Snow leopards and their prey species such as ungulates.

Focusing on the broader road ecology theme, the study gathered evidence on infrastructure-related threats to Snow leopards and their habitat in the G-B region. It collected data on wildlife-vehicle collisions, investigated the impact of increasing infrastructure on human-wildlife interaction and analysed land use changes in known Snow leopard hotspots over the past 20 years. It covered two major roads namely Karakoram Highway (KKH) and Gilgit-Shandur Road which bisect Snow leopard habitat.

In the backdrop of the surging infrastructure growth in the G-B region, the WWF-Pakistan launched the Sustainable Infrastructure Initiative in 2019 which aimed to build the capacities of relevant stakeholders, raise awareness, and advocate for sustainable and green infrastructure planning and development in the Hindukush-Karakoram-Himalaya (HKH) region.

Commenting on the study, Hammad Naqi Khan, the Director General of the WWF-Pakistan said that any infrastructure development project always helped boost trade and tourism, but the environment and species conservation aspects should not be overlooked.

He was of the view that detrimental impacts of the development projects could be avoided through meticulous planning, sustainable infrastructure and an integrated approach which promotes biodiversity conservation and protection of the natural ecosystem. “It’s crucial to build upon this study and undertake further investigations on wildlife movement and migration patterns to assess the impact of the infrastructure development on wildlife populations in critical habitats”, Khan added.

The report further indicated that large-scale transport infrastructure development and burgeoning hospitality projects have posed a threat to the local biodiversity and pristine landscape in G-B.

The report proposed that following the current laws regulating wildlife, linear development, and human encroachment should be prohibited in the protected areas. It also recommended that the construction of wildlife corridors and crossings in potential wildlife habitats could help minimise the access of wildlife to high-traffic roads and could reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.

It also suggested that the deployment of devoted law enforcement and traffic personnel along wildlife hotspots could help thwart the hunting and poaching of Snow leopards and their prey species. The report also suggested that infrastructure-related development projects should take proactive mitigation steps to safeguard the native ecology and wild species.

Various studies indicate that as Snow leopard is an elusive animal, hence it’s difficult to record its exact population in the distribution range across Central and South Asia. However, a 2020 WWF research indicated that fewer than 7,000 Snow leopards remain globally, of which approximately 200 to 420 individuals inhabit the northern mountain ranges of Pakistan including the G-B region, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), and Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK).

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2024.


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