© Muhammad Osama / WWF
How AI-based camera traps are mitigating conflict with the snow leopard

Living with the Ghost

Far over the misty mountains of Gilgit Baltistan resides the elusive snow leopard, in one of the harshest imaginable environments on the planet. Nestled in between these brown and grey behemoths are valleys, each with its own story. The snow-cloaked mountains and their bare rocky ridges speak of the harshness of the region, where only the fittest of life forms dare to tread. The snow leopard, however, doesn’t just survive here, it thrives.

Below these colossuses, in the Khyber village situated in the Hunza Gojal valley, resides a small agro and nomadic pastoral human population. The total population here numbers only over a thousand, spread across 168 households over an area 330 square kilometers. Despite the grandiose backdrop that these people live across, their lives are in fact marked by sheer austerity. These are no ordinary mountain people. They don’t just live along the mountain, they are defined by it. Everything that they possess is necessary and everything here has a purpose. 

“We used to be angry. We have great respect for the wildlife here and we even protect the ibex from poaching. But what more could we do when our livelihoods were at risk? We had to take matters into our own hands to protect our livestock.” explains Irfan, as the sun sets behind the towering peaks.

© Muhammad Osama / WWF

Among these necessities is the local wildlife of the region, to which the local villagers are profoundly dedicated to conserving and protecting. Here, despite the limited resources there is an inextricable bond between man and nature. This rugged terrain isn't merely a challenge for its human inhabitants, it also serves as a crucible for a remarkable array of wildlife. A diverse ecosystem has carved out its existence here. The region is home to the Himalayan ibex, the wolf, the fox, the Himalayan lynx, and of course, the snow leopard. Of these, the ibex is of particular importance to the locals.

Since 1992, the Himalayan ibex’s population has flourished in this region due to the locals’ progressive approach towards wildlife conservation. The people of Khyber and its wildlife enjoy a symbiotic relationship, to say the least. Along with this, the locals also partake in agriculture and livestock rearing which form the bedrock of the local economy.

And yet, the locals at times come at odds with the wildlife, for within these mountains lurks a ghost. The ‘Ghost of the Mountain’ as it is often referred to, the snow leopard is the apex predator of this vast land. This elusive but magisterial cat over the past few years has come closer to the human population as people encroach further up north to the big cat's habitat. These habitats once remote are now more accessible as well. Climate change has not been kind to it and rising temperatures have meant that while this once reclusive creature used to reside much higher up in the mountains, it now has to come down closer to human populations in search of its prey.

Therein lies the conflict. These elusive predators, whose presence in the region is both a blessing and a source of conflict, prey on the livestock, in the absence of their natural prey, that are the lifeblood of the Khyber villagers. Livestock depredation, often at the hands of the snow leopard, is the primary reason behind human-wildlife conflict. Snow leopards also contibute a greater percentage in livestock killing cases in the valley in comparison to other wildlife species such as wolves, Himalayan lynx and fox. The growing specter of human-wildlife conflict poses an escalating danger to both the conservation efforts of the snow leopard and local community development.

To the locals, the loss of livestock represents not only an economic blow but also a disruption to their way of life. It is a harsh reality, one that leads to anger and resentment, as they struggle to protect their most precious resources in this extreme landscape. When communities experience losses due to livestock depredation, they tend to look at wildlife as an enemy which can undermine support for conservation initiatives and hinder efforts to protect endangered species. In an attempt to protect their livestock, they resort to either killing or trapping predators such as snow leopards.

"During a single predation incident, we would lose as many as 60 to 70 livestock, including our goats and sheep. This set us back years. These would destroy the foundations of our economy,” recounts Irfan Ali, a wildlife photographer by profession and a resident of the village. His views echo those of the rest of the villagers and their fear of snow leopard attacks.

“We used to be angry. We have great respect for the wildlife here and we even protect the ibex from poaching. But what more could we do when our livelihoods were at risk? We had to take matters into our own hands to protect our livestock.” explains Irfan, as the sun sets behind the towering peaks.

Understanding this anger is at the heart of the wildlife conservation work that is being carried out by organizations such as WWF. The foundation of this work is built on the fact that we need to safeguard the snow leopard, while also acknowledging how big cats impact the people who live alongside them and the economic losses they bear. This is a delicate balancing act between preserving an ecosystem and respecting the needs and concerns of the people who live in its midst.

© WWF Pakistan

To this end, WWF-Pakistan, along with the National Centre of Robotics and Automation (NCRA) at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), has embarked on a mission to mitigate the escalating human-wildlife conflict in the area and ensure the survival of the snow leopard. In 2022, together with the two organizations installed AI-based camera traps which serve as a Predator Early Warning System (PEWS). Before these cameras, every year on average two to three livestock depredation incidents happened in the village, however, since its inception, a year has peacefully gone by and not a single livestock depredation event has been reported from Khyber village.

The solar powered camera traps are strategically placed in areas vulnerable to wildlife depredation where they capture images of the wildlife. These traps are connected through the local 4G mobile network. Besides capturing images, and more importantly, they transmit real-time data to a central monitoring system, equipped with a rather sophisticated AI algorithm. The true innovation lies in this algorithm which analyzes the images and alerts field teams to potential depredation events. When a snow leopard or any other predator comes close to the human settlements, the AI-based system sends out automatic alerts. As a result, information sharing has become much easier, and the villagers are able to secure their livestock before the leopard can attack.

But perhaps the most remarkable outcome is the shift in the community’s perception. Farmers are no longer trapped in the cycle of fear and economic loss. Seeing the impact of this intervention, they have begun to embrace non-lethal deterrent methods, such as improved fencing and scare tactics. The Predator Early Warning System has not only protected their livestock but has also kindled a newfound appreciation for wildlife's role in the ecosystem.

© WWF Pakistan

Nishat Ali, a farmer residing in Khyber village, offers his insights into the transformative impact of the warning system. He speaks of the deep sense of security it has brought to their lives. "In the past," he recalls, "we constantly worried about our livestock's safety, especially due to the looming threat of snow leopard attacks."
The gratitude in his voice was apparent. "This technological package has brought immense relief to our family." He went on to describe how they now receive notifications about a snow leopard's presence in the valley. "We received messages on our mobile phones. The images showed very clearly that a snow leopard was nearby. When we received this information, one of our family members took on the responsibility of staying with the livestock for a week and we fortified our fences. There were attacks in the past year, and no snow leopards were seen in the area afterward.”

Ijlal Ahmed, Conservator Parks and Wildlife at the Forest, Wildlife and Environment Department, shared his thoughts on the intervention after a year of meticulous project monitoring. “This cutting-edge technology has yielded remarkable results by not only preserving the local community’s livelihood sources but also simplifying their responsibilities.” Following the resounding success in mitigating human-wildlife conflicts, the Forest, Wildlife and Environment Department of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan is now determined to extend this model project to other regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, to ensure a brighter and prosperous future for both the wildlife and the local communities.

This intervention has accomplished more than just mitigating human-wildlife conflict. It has fostered coexistence between snow leopards and locals, contributing to a broader cultural shift towards harmony with this majestic creature.

The ghost of the mountains is no longer haunting the locals.

© Muhammad Osama / WWF