Don’t Confuse Poaching with Hunting

This is a distinction that matters

By Rob Breeding

I read Peter Matthiessen’s classic “The Snow Leopard” years ago. The book recounts the author’s journey to the Himalayas in 1973, ostensibly as part of a research team studying the leopard’s favorite prey, blue sheep.

But we soon learn Matthiessen is searching for something other than wildlife. His journey came shortly after the death of his wife, and the author uses the remote Asian mountains as refuge. It’s nature as medicine for his broken soul.

Matthiessen recounts his quest to find a wild snow leopard on the quest. He fails, though in the end realizes the purpose of his journey wasn’t what he had initially thought. Maybe what he had been in search of was the search itself.

It’s a great book. I’ve been fascinated with snow leopards ever since. So the other day when I spied a World Wildlife Fund commercial featuring snow leopard conservation, I stopped to watch.

It started well with dramatic images of the big cat — dirty white fur with black rosettes and that impossibly long tail — set against the rugged Himalayas.

Dramatic text ran across the screen.

“One is illegally killed each and every day.”

“Fewer than 6,500 left in the wild.”

Rascal Flats’ hit “I Won’t Let Go” played in the background.

Then the ad drifted from its conservation message to a dig at hunting when the narrator implored, “As this magnificent species edges closer to extinction, hunting continues to rise.”

What junk, especially since there may be more of these big cats than previously thought.

If you’re thinking, “OK boomer, quit being such a snowflake,” you’re missing the point. I am sensitive to the way “hunting” and “poaching” are sometimes treated as synonyms, but that’s because this is a distinction that matters.

There’s no moratorium on big cat hunting. The Cecil the lion debacle — an example of unethical hunting, but hunting nonetheless — wasn’t that long ago. And while bow hunting big cats is a cruel vanity project as far as I’m concerned, snow leopards are no longer a game species, as they were back when Matthiessen was trekking across the Tibetan Plateau.

The people killing snow leopards today are mostly herders, who do so in response to livestock attacks, and poachers who sell leopard pelts on the black market.

It’s hard to be judgmental about herders eking out a marginal subsistence in a place so desolate (albeit beautifully desolate) that subsistence is barely possible. I’m not so understanding when it comes to poachers, though they are in part driven by the same limited resources.

I’m not apologizing for poaching, but the first step in fixing a problem is understanding the underlying causes. And the World Wildlife Fund’s ad campaign isn’t helping.

That’s because hunting is one potential solution for the threatened status of snow leopards. You may not be fond of sport and/or trophy hunting, but it is often the source of the money that pays for wildlife conservation. The North American Model is the gold standard, and conservation funded by African trophy hunting is one of the remaining bulwarks against the primary threats to that continent’s big game: habitat loss, poaching and human/animal conflicts.

In addition to blue sheep, also known as bharal, the snow leopard’s prey includes Himalayan ibex and argali sheep. All three compete for food with the livestock of herders. And if wild game declines as a result of this competition, snow leopards are more likely to prey on domestic goats and sheep. That just fuels the cycle of reprisal killings and decline.

Instead, how about letting trophy ibex hunters pay herders to protect the Himalaya’s native sheep?

To the World Wildlife Fund I say keep fighting for snow leopards, one of the planet’s most graceful predators. But don’t be distracted on this quest.

The threat you think you see could be the snow leopard’s salvation.