Science & Environment

Cashmere trade threat to snow leopards

Snow leopard
Image caption Snow leopards are critically endangered as their natural prey has declined

The global demand for cashmere is threatening endangered snow leopards, according to a new report.

Domestic cashmere goats in parts of Central Asia have almost tripled in the last 20 years to fuel cashmere demand.

The goats are encroaching on the natural habitats of the snow leopard and their natural prey.

The authors of the paper, published in Conservation Biology, say that other endangered animals are also at risk.

These include herbivores which compete for the same resources as the goats, such as the antelope Saiga tatarica, the Tibetan chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii) and the Himalayan bharal (Pseudois nayaur) also known as the blue sheep.

As the snow leopards' habitats converge with domestic goats, the decline of wild prey can increasingly lead the leopards to hunt the goats.

Consequently there has now been an observed increase in "retaliatory killings" of snow leopards by humans protecting their herds, report the authors.

In Mongolia alone, numbers of domestic goats have grown from about from five million in 1990 to close to 14 million in 2010. Farmers in India and China's Tibetan Plateau also herd goats for cashmere.

Charudutt Mishra of the Snow Leopard Trust and one of the co-authors of the paper, said cashmere "is an important source of livelihood" for local communities in many parts of Central Asia.

"Cashmere production is a complicated human issue. Understandably, indigenous herders are trying to improve their livelihoods, but the short-term economic gain is harming the local ecosystem.

"By improving our understanding of the relationship between indigenous herders, local ecology and global markets, we can implement policies at the national and international level which are better designed to protect biodiversity while supporting the livelihoods of local communities."

Dr Mischra, who received funding for his work from the Whitley Award for nature conservation, told BBC News that while cashmere production was not new, the global market for it had dramatically increased over the past 20 years.

He said "green labelling" of cashmere clothes could help bring awareness to the issue.

"One of the intentions is to bring together some of the local communities who produce cashmere and the buyers from the international market.

"We want to address everyone's concerns and develop a programme where we can make grazing more sustainable, and that allows for wild and domestic animals to co-exist."

Image caption Cashmere goats are raised for their luxurious goat hair

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