Ph.D Project

Ensure the resilience of local communities and biodiversity in the high mountains of Central Asia

Overview

Background

Mountain ecosystems are complex systems which provide ecological niches for a wide variety of species and numerous essential ecosystem services which support the economy and society’s well-being. In Central Asia, mountain ecosystems are the home of many threatened and emblematic species such as the elusive snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) and the argali (Ovis ammon) (CEPF, 2017). These species form complex interactions with other species across trophic levels, including local communities. Over the last decades, the scientific focus has been on assessing top-down and bottom-up dynamics in these ecosystems, along with human-wildlife conflicts and local communities’ resilience. However, over the same period, climate change has led to an increase in the frequency of extreme climatic and shifts in precipitation regimes. These changes are affecting the dynamics among species as well as the relationship between local communities and biodiversity (USAID, 2018).

To create better management and conservation plans for snow leopards and other wildlife, landscapes and resilience of local communities with access to limited natural resources, it is essential to understand their patterns of space use and interactions across different trophic levels. Although several studies have attempted to understand the ecological dynamics between specific biotic interactions such as predator-prey interactions (Aryal et al. 2016; Xu et al. 2009), fewer have focused on the various direct and indirect relationships that connect ecological trophic levels. This information is critical to inform decision-making that supports conservation efforts. As a flagship species representing the mountain environments of Central and South Asia, the snow leopard has received a lot of international attention over the last two decades. However, increasingly there is a need to examine the impact of climate change on entire ecosystems, including the response of humans to these ongoing and projected changes. Understanding how current and future changes in climatic patterns impact primary resources will help develop appropriate short and long-term conservation plans.

                                                                                                                            Fig 1. Mountains of Central Asia Ⓒ UCA - Marc Foggin

The Snow Leopard - The Flagship Species

The Mountains of Central Asia are composed of two main ranges: the Pamir and the Tien Shan. They form with the HimalayaTostHindi-KushAltai mountains and their extensions, the home of the snow leopard. The snow leopard is an emblematic species not only because of its rare beauty, but because of its key political and ecological roles.

Its home range spreads across 12 countries where some strong in-between and within countries political tensions exist : Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, China, India, Russia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. Despite these tensions, representatives of each country gathered in 2017 in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to sign the Bishkek Declaration which ensures the future of snow leopards and their habitat through the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP). This global effort followed the down-listing conservation status from Endangered to Vulnerable of the snow leopard by the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN). 

Panthera Uncia on Camera Trap
Ⓒ Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) / Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan (SLFK)

The Global Discussion

This down-listing raised discussions in the scientific community (SLT | Panthera | BBC ) and motivated a global movement. The snow leopard lives in high altitude, remote and harsh environments which are difficult to work in and monitor. The advancement of technology (e.g remote sensing and camera trapping) improved the collection of data over different time periods. However, the collected data covered a limited proportion of their territory, making global snow leopard estimates across the range highly discussable. In addition, since the start of 2020, communication is increasing towards individual misidentification leading to biased estimates when using camera traps to monitor wildlife (Johansson et al. 2020Press Article). Thanks to the global effort, a much higher proportion of the snow leopard range is now being monitored and the future results will bring more accurate estimates. 


Ecological Importance

Ecologically, snow leopards play a key role in regulating the ecosystem as apex predators. A fine balance exists between the abundance of predators, preys and natural resources - vegetation and water. These interactions are described through food chains (Fig 2). 

If one of the natural predators is removed from the system, the abundance of preys will increase with grazing pressures on the vegetation. This is called a trophic cascade. The example of the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone is a good example of the importance to preserve these predators.





However, because of habitat fragmentation and the increase of human populations mountain environments, there are increasing numbers of human-wildlife conflicts. These conflicts are often characterised by one of the following words: retaliationpoaching or hunting


Wolf in Yellowstone Update NatGeo July 2020

Fig 2. Example of the simplified food chain in the snow leopard habitat in Kyrgyzstan. Snow leopards mainly feed on Argali (Ovis ammon) and Ibex (Capra siberica) which feed on grasslands. Each arrow represents what each species feed on. Each arrow has a specific proportional weight since not every species feed the same way. For instance, snow leopards do not feed equally between Argali and Ibex across the year. 
Photo credits to ⒸSnow Leopard Trust (SLT) / Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan (SLFK)

Pastoralism and Local Communities

Pastoralism is a key system for people living in drylands. It provides livelihoods for between 100 and 200 million people (CBD Secretariat 2010), produces about 10% of the world’s meat and plays an important role in the economy of some of the poorest countries in the world (FAO 2001, WISP 2010). However, the increase of external pressures, such as human population growth, economic development, land use changes and climate change, are constraining the capacity of pastoralists to adapt to the variations of their environment (Nori et al. 2005, Dong et al. 2011). 

For more than a decade now, there is an increasing concern among herders towards pasture availability and quality (Kyrgyzstan 2010; Kyrgyzstan 20132020). However, poor management practices and the lack of education reinforce issues concerning pastures which consist the primary food resources for not only livestock, but for a great amount of wild herbivores.

Climate Change

Climate change and its numerous impacts on ecosystems around the world can no longer be denied. Mountain biodiversity and peoples are the most impacted by global warming, shifts in precipitation regimes and increased frequency in droughts/hazards.

Press and Reports

Change of Perspectives

In a system where nutrients and primary resources are sufficient, the studies are often led with a top-down approach. This means that predators are considered as the main influencer on lower trophic levels. From this approach, the questions scientists might try to answer are the following:

On a short and long-term perspectives,

Do the prey densities increase/decrease/remain the same if the top predator population decreases? [Predator-Prey Interactions]

Do we observe a change in primary resources availability when the grazer populations increase? [Herbivore-Plant Interaction]


These studies are primordial to understand the dynamics within ecosystems. For instance, the impact of the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone was studied by using top-down designs. However, with the increase of climate change impacts on alpine vegetation (e.g. plant phenologyplant species composition) and anthropogenic disturbances (e.g. land degradation,  livestock grazing), the primary resources become the limiting factor in our ecosystems. Thus, the best way to study the short and long-term dynamics in our systems is to study bottom-up interactions. By doing so, we look at the system the other way around and ask ourselves the potential following questions?

Moreover, local communities play a key role in these dynamics. They are integral parts of mountain ecosystems and protecting the biodiversity and resources doesn't work without protecting and involving the peoples. 

Aim

Thus, the aim is to assess the impacts of climate change on ecological and socio-economic conditions in the Naryn State Reserve (NSR) in Kyrgyzstan (Fig 1), which may also serve as a model of a Central Asian pastoral system undergoing transition. In areas where human livelihoods are still wholly dependent on the natural world, climate change has already impacted communities which do not have yet the capacity to adapt to these changes (Kulikov et al. 2020; Xenarios et al. 2019). From 2021 to 2025, field work will take place during the period of June-September in the Naryn State Reserve, Kyrgyzstan (Fig 3).

Fig 3. Map of Kyrgyzstan with the location of the Naryn State Reserve.

Our focus in this project is to: 
(i) examine the current distribution and abundance of snow leopard and prey, 
(ii) conduct an economic valuation of provisional ecosystem services, 
(iii) report changes in the timing of primary resource phenology to assess potential changes in food availability for livestock and wild prey, and 
(iv) develop scenarios based on various climatic projections and using historic trends to predict potential impacts on land-use by wildlife and humans.

By using a pluri-disciplinary approach combining traditional/local knowledge and new technologies, we will assess and predict the past, present and future bottom-up interactions in the mountain habitats of the Naryn State Reserve. This study will be conducted with a multi-taxa approach across different trophic levels and with a focus on climate change impacts. We intend that this information to be valuable to not only develop climate adapted conservation strategies, but also help build the resilience of the local economies against various climatic scenarios.

 

Due to major changes in political regimes, Central Asia has undergone various land-use management systems. Prior to the Soviet installation in the region, Central Asian rangelands were mainly used by nomadic peoples. In 1918, the Soviet Union changed management practices from disperse practices to collective practices. Thus, human presence and livestock grazing became localised and intensified in areas. This sedentism caused changes in the type of practices which resulted in higher livestock production, the use of the land for agriculture and wider areas used for livestock grazing, hunting and other activity related to the sustainability of the community. It was not visible at first, but these changes impacted the availability of the natural resources and the dynamics between the different trophic levels (Fig 4).

 

PRE SOVIET TIMES 

Nomadic herding practices meant to move as the seasons pass by and continuously change between pastures. The herd size was big enough to provide for the family and for occasional trading between families. The competition for natural resources was insignificant and the rare attacks of wolves and snow leopards on the herds were passed among generations for epic story-telling evenings in the steppes.

SOVIET TIMES

The change to Soviet practices led to a strong increase of livestock and sedentism through the creation of collective farms. The meat was produced for mass-production. More land was used locally and the amount of livestock steeply increased to the point where it over-exceeded pasture capacity (Wilson 1997).

POST SOVIET TIMES

When the Soviet Union broke down in 1991, the herders were left with no concrete animal husbandry and pasture governance plans. The amount of livestock in Kyrgyzstan drastically dropped (from 10 millions animals  to 3 Millions) to palliate the national market's needs. 

TOMORROW

Wilson's report in 1997 explains the benefits from the Soviet Union breakdown from a pasture management point-of-view. Indeed, at the time the perspectives were that the reduction in the amount of livestock will allow pastures to regenerate and to plan more sustainable practices. However, due to increasing pressures, disturbances and changes in climate, we do not know how the system is currently working and where it will shift towards. This is what I aim to understand.

                                                              Fig 4. Evolution of the simplified food chains found in Kyrgyzstan based on the main mountain species of interest in this study.

Objectives

  • To document the current distribution and abundance of snow leopard and prey in the study area as a function of environmental, geographical and anthropogenic covariates.
  • To describe the changes in land-use patterns in the study area over time, using satellite remote sensing.
  • To assess changes in the timing of primary resource phenology in the study area, in order to assess potential changes in food availability for livestock and wild prey (both primary and secondary data sources will provide this information).
  • To develop scenarios based on regional climatic projections and to use historic trends to predict its impact on land-use by wildlife and humans in the study area
  • To provide management recommendations for climate resilient livelihood development and wildlife conservation in the study.

Methods

 Study Area - The Naryn State Reserve (NSR)

The specialty of the Naryn State Reserve is the way it is managed. Created in 1983, the core of the reserve has remained untouched since then. However, the buffer zones of the reserve have seen an increasing amount of livestock herding throughout the last decade (Fig 5). By having within the same study area different types of governance regimes, we can study the impact of livestock grazing on these rangelands.

 Fig 5. The Naryn State Reserve limits with the buffer and core zones.

 The Methods

The strength of this study lies in the combination of methods which include both traditional knowledge and new technologies (e.g. camera traps, remote sensing, Artificial Intelligence), from the plot scale to the landscape scale, and assessment of past and present changes to develop a framework for predicting future changes under a variety of scenarios.

To collect data representing this variety of scenarios, we use elevational gradients. These gradients are useful to study climate change impacts on the biodiversity. Indeed, there is naturally a temperature and water availability gradient as elevation increases which can be used as proxies for climate change.

Here is an example from the Naryn State Reserve, Kyrgyzstan (Fig 6). If we walk along a randomly selected transect going from 2500m to 4000m, we observe a gradual change in vegetation and animal communities. Closer to the river bed, vegetation is denser with forests and nutrient-rich plants. The temperature is milder and water more abundant even though this is an arid environment. As we walk higher up, temperatures decrease, water is annually more distributed as snow. Grasslands become the main vegetation state. This is where most intense grazers are found, both wild and domestic throughout the year. As altitude increases, temperature decreases. Vegetation becomes less abundant. We enter barren lands. Mountain goats such as ibex and argali are highly distributed in these environments especially during the summer. However, this is also where snow leopards thrive. 

 

Fig 6. Example of an elevational gradient of 6 kilometers in the Naryn State Reserve (NSR), Kyrgyzstan, with an highlight of the several plant and mammal communities which can be found along the gradient. The graph describes the decrease in annual mean temperature (°C) as altitude increases.

Because of global warming, there is an upward shift of the treeline and increase of soil degradation, directly impacting the rangelands availability. In addition, because the land is increasingly used for animal husbandry without adapted management, pastures become less resilient. 


 METHODS TO ASSESS PAST AND PRESENT PATTERNS

The protocols put in place respect the recommendations of the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Project (GSLEP) and the Herbivory Network.

Camera Traps

Photographic spatial capture-recapture data on snow leopards will be collected using c.40 camera traps with a layout optimizing sampling of altitudinal gradients and habitats. Also, wildlife abundance will be estimated through primary sign and direct sighting-based surveys and use of line transects across the study area by adopting stratified sampling.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing data (e.g. MODIS, LandSatTM) with habitat evaluation plots across a range sites characterized by reflectance from False Color Composites to develop land-use types with supervised classification of the data

Surveys

Socio-economic surveys to understand the ecosystem services provisioned by the local communities as well as the current economic status and the changes it has underwent in the past 30 years.

A camera trap resisting the cold winters in the Kyrgyz mountains ©Sherry Young

Following fresh marks of the elusive snow leopard ©Sherry Young

METHODS TO PREDICT FUTURE PATTERNS


MODELISATION

Generalized Linear Modeling to develop scenarios based on various climatic projections from historic trends to predict its impact on land-use by wildlife and humans in the study area. We will create models for vegetation biomass, space use by wildlife, humans and livestock as a function of independent, measurable variables and back-project the models to determine historical impact of climate change on various trophic levels.

State-and-Transition Models (STM) to understand a system by visualizing its different states and transitions and to evaluate the main drivers of change.

Anticipated Significance

The study will provide an understanding of the impacts of temperature, precipitation and hazard frequency shifts on vegetation, wildlife, livestock and human land-use across the Naryn State Reserve through the publication of several research papers (e.g. meta-analysis on past habitat changes; past, present and predicted shifts in trophic interactions and biodiversity spatial distribution). Also, these outputs will help local organizations and local communities in management and conservation-decision-making.

The goal behind following the protocol recommendations from GSLEP and the Herbivory Network is to allow the results of this study to be used in global conservation programs such as the First Population Assessment of the World's Snow Leopards (PAWS).

Furthermore, this project will be used as a training platform for the future generation of Kyrgyz scientists The partnership with the University of Central Asia (UCA) is meant to give the opportunity to local students to be trained on climate change, land-use and biodiversity conservation related issues. We want the research to go beyond this PhD project and to equally give the opportunity to young men and women to get trained on such topics.

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