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Snow Leopard Conservation Has Gained Two Unlikely Allies: Bees and Fruit Trees

Photo by Daniel Swan

In snow leopard range countries, new agricultural development has proven fruitful in more ways than one. 

Fruit trees and little bees are making a surprising yet sizable positive impact on snow leopard conservation in the species’ range countries. Beekeeping is a burgeoning industry in Kyrgyzstan, where local beekeepers produced a total of 2,382 tons of honey in 2021. As the beekeeping industry in Kyrgyzstan has grown in the past few years, it has provided some local livestock herders with an additional source of income. 

After consultations with different stakeholders, several business sector representatives and local community members, the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) has partnered with the Snow Leopard Foundation of Kyrgyzstan (SLFK) to expand the beekeeping industry in Kyrgyzstan, implementing a program with three local communities that facilitates the expansion of beekeeping and orcharding (the practice of planting fruit trees and growing their fruit). Beekeeping as a conservation initiative is not a new concept, with successful programs in Africa and Latin America. Kyrgyzstan used to be a big honey exporter within the Soviet Union, and there remains a huge potential for honey production in the region. 

While some community members were already practicing beekeeping, the SLT-SLFK program introduced better equipment, hundreds more beehives, and more efficient methods to allow locals to reap greater rewards from their efforts. For their part, the communities committed to snow leopard conservation by signing agreements dedicating 20% of honey sales (and 50% of fruit sales) to initiatives that will benefit both humans and wildlife, such as research cameras, anti-poaching patrols, and pasture management. 

“As part of our interest in the communities that live adjacent to important snow leopard habitat, we have been trying to engage and strengthen our relationships through activities that directly link conservation with economic development,” the Snow Leopard Trust said. “Climate change threatens many existing livelihood streams, so it is imperative to diversify livelihood options with adaptation strategies that can mitigate current and future effects of a warming climate. There is a need to develop additional sources of income for people because they mostly rely on agriculture and livestock breeding which will be adversely affected by climate change. In addition, there is a risk of increased humanwildlife conflict in the future.” 

Beekeeping presents multi-faceted benefits for communities and their surrounding environments. Raising bees provides people with additional sources of income, but that’s not all. Bees help with pollination which, in turn, increases food security and biodiversity. Finally, the conservation contracts allow SLT-SLFK to link this economic activity with protection of important snow leopard habitats. 

The program has achieved great success so far in Kyrgyzstan, and is expanding to other snow leopard range countries. For instance, at least one community in Pakistan is currently engaged in beekeeping initiatives, with hopes to involve more communities in the future. In Pakistan, beekeeping may just be beginning, but orcharding is already thriving. In 2022, seven communities were engaged in planting programs across Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, planting more than 7,000 trees and more than 1,000 fruit plants. The new development has yielded unexpected benefits for native snow leopards, especially in these nations. 

Snow leopards are sneaky, silent hunters well-adapted to an unforgiving life in the barren mountains of their range countries, but climate change, loss of habitat and loss of prey species have driven snow leopards closer to humans, resulting in competition between us and them. When snow leopards wander near livestock farms, they make easy prey of fenced in, domesticated livestock like sheep. This, of course, means the farmer has lost money, and many farmers kill snow leopards in retaliation for killing livestock. 

This negative relationship is detrimental to conservation of the endangered snow leopard species, and to the livelihood of the farmers who are losing money due to snow leopard predation. However, the implementation of beekeeping and orchard farming has allowed livestock farmers to shift their practices, and in the process, reduce competition with local snow leopards. While it isn’t a universal solution to the threats facing wild snow leopards, the beekeeping and orcharding program has been a wonderful success with a clear positive impact. 

Here at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, we are honored to provide care for both snow leopards and hives of honey bees, and are pleased to see one of these species indirectly benefiting the other!

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