Barry Rosenbaum is an ecologist and conservationist who is working to protect the elusive snow leopards that live high in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. Rosenbaum, who holds a doctorate in biology with a focus on behavioral ecology, splits his time between Boulder and Mongolia. He will be speaking about the science of snow leopard protection and the social dimensions of community-based conservation at two public events: tonight, Thursday, April 25, at the ACES Hallam Lake Campus, 100 Puppy Smith St. in Aspen, beginning at 6 p.m., and at the Basalt Regional Library located at 14 Midland Ave. in Basalt, on Friday, April 26, at 10 a.m. The discussions are supported by Aspen-based “Kids Saving Elephants/Kids Saving Big Cats.”
I caught up with Rosenbaum to better understand why Roaring Fork Valley residents should care about snow leopards.
RFWJ: How did you get started tracking leopards in remote places and what have you learned so far?
Rosenbaum: I founded the Altai Institute for Research and Conservation because of my long involvement with Mongolia and the many threats to its steppe and mountain ecosystems. I’ve worked extensively with local communities, and I’ve seen how overgrazing impacts wild species, habitats and ecosystems across Mongolia. At the Altai Institute, we work to protect snow leopards and mitigate habitat pressures by enhancing herder livelihoods through community development. We also lead programs in schools and conduct extensive research on leopards and other mammals.
Over the past several years we have collared one adult female, one adult male and one adolescent male that dispersed from our study site three months after collaring. From the adults, we plotted home ranges and habitat use. Comparing this data with other areas in Mongolia that have different prey densities and livestock presence helped us to further understand the nuances of snow leopard ecology and to develop protection plans. The male that left the study area was so fun to watch. Over eight months, he traveled hundreds of miles, into China and Russia, in search of a home range with sufficient prey and unoccupied by other leopards. When the collar dropped off, he was still moving and his movements strengthened our arguments about the need for corridors for snow leopard conservation.
We have also done extensive camera trapping, and based upon spot patterns, we have identified another 16 leopards living in our study area.
RFWJ: Why should people in this area care about snow leopards and their protection?
Rosenbaum: We live in a world where species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. The earth is losing about 150 to 200 species of plants and animals a year. This is 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, which could cause as much as 50 percent of the planet's species to go extinct by 2050. Each species is a unique experiment in adapting life to the conditions of earth. Each loss is the loss of millions of years of information about life itself.
In more scientific terms, the snow leopard is an apex predator and its loss will result in a cascade that will change the character of the community of species in which it is enmeshed, and ultimately, the lives of the humans who live within its range. Besides … snow leopards are just cool. I work with several species of wildlife in Mongolia. When talking about my work, everyone just yawns or shakes their heads politely, until I mention snow leopards. Then they want to know more about my work.
RFWJ: How do you engage local families in leopard conservation?
Rosenbaum: We partner with local herders, and they run our field camps. This helps supplement their income and gives them a close look at snow leopards. Many have seen snow leopards from a distance, and most are afraid. But seeing snow leopards up close, and working with them, gives herders a new appreciation for the animals with which they share their living space. The locals are proud that the outside world finds “their” snow leopards worth attention. Herders also record wildlife sightings while tending to their flocks and herds.
We are also building a new nature education center for rangers in the local protected area where they’ll teach students about the wild landscape, the plants and animals around them, and the importance of conservation.
RFWJ: What can Mid-Valley residents do to make a difference and help protect the leopards?
Rosenbaum: Educate yourselves on the plight of the snow leopards and the factors that threaten the species’ existence. Support organizations that are working to protect snow leopards. Not just with financial contributions, but by being educated on how your actions influence the threats to snow leopards. For example, in Mongolia overgrazing by livestock is the most serious threat to snow leopards because of habitat degradation. The global demand for cashmere drives the overstocking of pasture lands. About 30 percent of the world’s cashmere comes from Mongolia. The next time you want to buy cashmere, think of an alternative, such as yak down, or find companies that encourage and support sustainable pasture practices. This can make a big difference!