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Studying the snow leopard: reconceptualizing conservation across the China–India border


The snow leopard is a highly charismatic megafauna that elicits admiration, concern and donations from individuals and NGOs in the West. In its home territories, however, it is a threat to local communities' livestock and a potential source of income for its pelt and parts. Conservation and study are further challenged by its range; snow leopards traverse the borders separating China, India and ten other countries with long histories of tension with each other as well as internal political and economic struggles. This transnational animal provides an ideal case study for the consideration of transnational conservation science in the recent past.

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1 Interview with Yash Veer Bhatnagar, Mysore, 18 March 2013, transcript on file with Michael Lewis.

2 Hu Jinchu, Da xiongmao de yanjiu, Shanghai: Shanghai keji jiaoyu chuban she chuban faxing, 2001, 3, cited in E. Elena Songster, Panda Nation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming, Chapter 1. Donald Harper, ‘The cultural history of the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in early China’, Early China (2013) 35, pp. 185224, 219.

3 Shiqi, Zhou, ‘Shanhai jing mengji ji xuebao kao’ (Examining mengji and xuebao in the Classic of Seas and Mountains), Zhongguo keji shi liao (China's History of Science and Technology) (1991) 12(2), pp. 8487, cited in Juan Li, ‘Ecology and conservation strategy of snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in Sanjiangyuan Area on the Tibetan Plateau’, PhD dissertation, Peking University, 2012, p. 2; Ma Ming et al., Xinjiang xuebao (Snow Leopards in Xinjiang), Beijing: Science Press, 2013, p. 7.

4 Ma Ming et al., op. cit. (3), p. 565.

5 PRC Guowu yuan (State Council), ‘Guowu yuan guanyu jiji baohu he heli liyong yesheng dongwu ziyuan de zhishi’ (State Council notice concerning the active protection and rational use of wild-animal resources), Guolin Tanzi 287 hao, 14 September 1962, p. 3.

6 See Liao Yanfa and Tan Bangjie, ‘A preliminary study on the geographical distribution of snow leopards in China’, in Helen Freeman, India Dept of Environment, Forests, and Wildlife, International Snow Leopard Trust et al. (eds.), Proceedings of the Fifth International Snow Leopard Symposium, Delhi: International Snow Leopard Trust, 1988, pp. 62–63.

7 PRC Guowu yuan, op. cit. (5), p. 2.

8 Songster, op. cit. (2), Chapter 4.

9 Xinmin, Ni, ‘Gansu sheng gan nanzang zu zizhi zhou zhengui dongwu ziyuan diaocha’ (Survey of precious animals in the autonomous region of southern Tibet and in Gansu Province), Chinese Journal of Zoology (1979) 2(14), pp. 3638; anon., ‘Xinjiang weiwuer zizhi qu zhengui dongwu kaocha gongzuo 1975 nian du jiben jieshu’ (Preliminary conclusions for the 1975 investigation work on the precious animal species in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region), Forestry of Xinjiang (1975) 3, p. 25; Zhongguo kexue yuan Xizang kexue kaocha dui (Chinese Academy of Science Tibet scientific investigation team), Woguo xizang zhumuqima feng diqu ziran tezheng he dizhi fazhan shi’ (A historical study of the distinctive features and geological development of the southern region of our nation's Tibet and the Zhumuqima mountainous region), Chinese Science Bulletin (1973) 1, pp. 1121.

10 Hari Dang, ‘The snow leopard and its prey’, Cheetal: The Journal of the Wildlife Preservation Society of India, Dehra Dun (October 1967) 10, pp. 72–84.

11 Hari Dang, ‘Notes on Himalayan wildlife’, in Dang (ed.), Himalayan Environment: Issues and Concerns in Conservation and Development, Delhi: S.K. Gorg, 2003, 35–47, p. 37.

12 Michael Lewis, Inventing Global Ecology: Tracking the Biodiversity Ideal in India, 1947–97, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004, esp. Chapter 3.

13 Dang, op. cit. (11), p. 46.

14 Schaller, George B., ‘Imperiled phantom of Asian peaks’, National Geographic (1971) 140, pp. 702707, 702.

15 Peter Mathiessen, Snow Leopard, New York City: Viking Books, 1978, p. 3.

16 On the conservation cards see George Schaller, A Naturalist and Other Beasts: Tales from a Life in the Field, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2007, p. 262.

17 Mathiessen, op. cit. (15), p. 330.

18 Ni Xinmin, op. cit. (9); anon., op. cit. (9); Zhongguo kexue yuan Xizang kexue kaocha dui, op. cit. (9).

19 See Lewis, op. cit. (12).

20 1990 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, Cambridge: World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 1990; for context see Lewis, op. cit. (12).

21 Outside India and China, in 1981, the Snow Leopard Trust was founded, and the Rolex foundation gave Rodney Jackson a grant to do the first radio collaring of snow leopards in Nepal, as described in Darla Hillard, Vanishing Tracks: Four Years among the Snow Leopards of Nepal, New York: Arbor House Publishing Company, 1989.

22 Liao and Tan, op. cit. (6), p. 60.

23 Liao and Tan, op. cit. (6), p. 52.

24 Schaller, George B., Hong, Li, Hua, Lu, Junrang, Ren, Mingjiang, Qiu and Haibin, Wang, ‘Status of large mammals in the Taxkorgan Reserve, Xinjiang, China’, Biological Conservation (1987) 42, pp. 5371; Schaller, George B., Junrang, Ren and Mingjiang, Qiu, ‘Status of snow leopard Panthera uncia in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, China’, Biological Conservation (1988) 45, pp. 179194.

25 Li Yuming, ‘Yesheng dongwu baohu guanli’ (Wild animal protection management), in Zhongguo Linye Nianjian (China Forestry Yearbook), 1949–1986, Beijing: Zhongguo linye chuban she, 1992 (1987), p. 81.

26 Schaller et al., op. cit. (24), p. 192.

27 Schaller, Ren and Qiu, op. cit. (24), p. 70.

28 Schaller, Ren and Qiu, op. cit. (24), p. 70.

29 Chen Maoyun and Ma Xiangcong, Shengtai faxue (Ecological Law), Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin jiauyu chuban she, 2000, pp. 228–229.

30 Schaller, Ren and Qiu, op. cit. (24), p. 193.

31 Green, M.J.B., ‘Status, distribution, and conservation of the snow leopard in north India’, International Pedigree Book of Snow Leopards (1982) 3, pp. 610; Mallon, D., ‘The snow leopard in Ladakh’, International Pedigree Book of Snow Leopards (1984) 4, pp. 2337.

32 Department of the Environment, National Wildlife Action Plan, New Delhi: Government of India, 1983.

33 In an extensive survey of the published scientific literature on snow leopards, as of 2015 research was still often geared towards the most basic of questions: are there snow leopards in a given area, and if so, how many? Some versions of this survey literature focus on different techniques for surveying snow leopards, including versions of direct observation, camera traps, scat and sign collection, DNA analysis of scat and hair to identify individuals, habitat analysis via satellite data and GIS, and attempts to use prey numbers and densities to determine possible predator densities.

34 Helen Freeman, ‘Introduction’, in Freeman et al., op. cit. (6), pp. ix–x.

35 Ministry of Environment and Forests, Snow Leopard Conservation Scheme, New Delhi: Government of India, 1988.

36 Li Juan, personal correspondence, search conducted in CNKI database, 2 October 2015. A similar study conducted in India shows the same trend, as described in the National Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Plan (2013).

37 Raghu Chundawat, ‘Ecological studies on the snow leopard and its prey species in Hemis National Park, Ladakh’, PhD dissertation, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, 1992. Interview with Raghu Chundawat, Delhi, 10 May 2013, transcript on file with Michael Lewis.

38 As quoted in John Allen, ‘A voice in the wilderness’, On Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Alumni Magazine (Summer 2010), pp. 22–29, 28.

39 Bhatnagar interview, op. cit. (1).

40 Li Juan, interview, Beijing, 21 June 2013.

41 Bhatnagar interview, op. cit. (1); George Schaller, Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalayas, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977; and Schaller, Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalayas, New York City: Viking Press, 1980.

42 Founded in 2006, Panthera is a well-funded NGO that focuses more broadly on all wild cats. With a headquarters in New York City, Panthera has attracted leading talent, particularly from US scientists, including its current vice president, George Schaller, as well as McCarthy, who is the executive director of their snow leopard programme.

43 Y.V. Bhatnagar, V.B. Mathur and T. McCarthy, ‘A regional perspective for snow leopard conservation in the Indian trans-Himalaya’, National Workshop on Regional Planning for Wildlife Protected Areas, 6–8 August 2001, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, GEF-India Ecodevelopment Project Initiative, Dehradun: Wildlife Institute of India, 2001.

44 Yash Veer Bhatnagar and Charudutt Mishra, ‘Conservation without fences: Project Snow Leopard’, in Mahesh Rangarajan, M.D. Madhusudan and Ghazala Shahabuddin (eds.), Nature without Borders, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2014, pp. 157–177, 160.

45 Bhatnagar interview, op. cit. (1). Also Ministry of Environment and Forests, Project Snow Leopard, New Delhi: Government of India, 2008.

46 For an India-specific review of the limitations of protected area-based conservation see Rangarajan, Madhusudan and Shahabuddin, op. cit. (44). For a more global review of the impacts of fortress conservation see Chris Conte, ‘Wild places or domesticated spaces: applying the wilderness concept to Africa, Asia, and South America’, in Michael Lewis (ed.), American Wilderness, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 223–242; for an early expression of landscape conservation outside snow leopards see B.H. Green, E.A. Simmons and I. Woltjer, ‘Landscape conservation: some steps towards developing a new conservation dimension’, University of London, Department of Agriculture, Horticulture and Environment, 1996; for an example of how this approach is changing even tiger conservation see Pranav Chanchani, Barry R. Noon, Larissa L. Bailey and Rekha Warrier, ‘Conserving tigers in working landscapes’, Conservation Biology (2015), published online.

47 Ma Ming et al., op. cit. (3), pp. ii, 567.

48 Ming, Ma, Munkhtsog, B., Xu, F., Mardan, T., Yin, S.J. and Wei, S.D., ‘Markings as indicator of snow leopard in field survey, in Xinjiang’, Chinese Journal of Zoology (2005) 40(4), pp. 3439; Ming, Ma, Xu, F., Munkhtsog, B., Wu, Y.Q., McCarthy, T. and McCarthy, K., ‘Monitoring of population density of snow leopard in Xinjiang’, Journal of Ecology and Rural Environment (2011) 27, pp. 7983 (in Chinese).

49 Philip Riordan, Samuel A. Cushman, David Mallon, Kun Shi and Joelene Hughes, ‘Predicting global population connectivity and targeting conservation action for snow leopard across its range’, Ecography (2015), published online; Alexander, Justine, Chen, Penju, Damerell, Peter, Youkui, Wang, Hughes, Joelene, Shi, Kun and Riordan, Philip, ‘Human–wildlife conflict involving large carnivores in Qilianshan, China and the minimal paw print of snow leopards’, Biological Conservation (2015) 187, pp. 19. Information about WildCRU is available on their website,

50 Charlene E. Makley, ‘The amoral Other’, in Emily T. Yeh and Chris Coggins (eds.), Mapping Shangrila, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014, pp. 229–254, 251; Juan Li, George B. Schaller, Thomas M. McCarthy, Dajun Wang, Zhala Jiagong, Ping Cai, Lamao Basang and Zhi Lu, ‘A communal sign post of snow leopards (Panthera uncia) and other species on the Tibetan Plateau, China’, International Journal of Biodiversity (2013), published online; li, Juan, Wang, Dajun, Yin, Hang, Zhaxi, Duojie, Jiagong, Zhala, Schaller, George B., Mishra, Charudutt, McCarthy, Thomas M., Wang, Hao, Wu, Lan, Xiao, Ling Yun, Basang, Lamao, Zhang, Yuguang, Zhou, Yuyun and Lu, Zhi, ‘Role of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in snow leopard conservation’, Conservation Biology (2014), pp. 8794; Li, Juan and Lu, Zhi, ‘Snow leopard poaching and trade in China, 2000–2013’, Biological Conservation (2014) 174, pp. 207211.

51 Makley, op. cit. (50), p. 251.

52 Shan Shui in Chinese is 山水. This literally translates as ‘mountains and water’, and is also a term used for a traditional style of landscape brush painting.

53 Interview with Charudutt Mishra, Bangalore, 15 March 2013, transcript on file with Michael Lewis.

54 Perhaps none have done this more effectively than Ramachandra Guha.

55 Mishra interview, op. cit. (53).

56 Schaller, Ren and Qiu, op. cit. (24), p. 193.

57 Juan Li, op. cit. (3), pp. 78–83.

58 Xiaoli, Shen, Zhi, , Shengzhi, Li and Chen, Nyima, ‘Tibetan sacred sites: understanding the traditional management system, and its role in modern conservation’, Ecology and Society (2012) 17(2), available at

59 Juan Li, op. cit. (3), p. 81.

60 Lobsang Norbu, translated from Tibetan, Tibetan Association of Northern California, 2015.

61 Juan Li et al., ‘Role of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, op. cit. (50).

62 Juan Li et al., ‘Role of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, op. cit. (50).

63 Mishra interview, op. cit. (53).

64 Bhatnagar and Mishra, op. cit. (44).

65 Bhatnagar and Mishra, op. cit. (44), p. 157.

66 Bhatnagar, personal communication.

67 ‘Global snow leopard & ecosystem protection program: who we are’,, accessed 29 December 2015.

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