Conservation in a Changing Climate: Asia’s High Mountains

By Manishka De Mel

©Klein & Hubert / WWF

©Klein & Hubert / WWF

Comprising the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya, Tien Shan, Pamir, Kunlun, and Altai Sayan ranges, the High Mountains of Asia are characterized by the world’s tallest peaks and snow-covered rugged terrain. High altitudes limit vegetation and livelihood options and pose harsh challenges to its inhabitants. However, Asia’s high mountains are a vital source of freshwater for millions of downstream users who depend on reliable flows for everyday use, agriculture and hydroelectricity.

The region is home to communities that share the landscape with wildlife such as the elusive snow leopard. Habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and poaching threaten the snow leopard, and conservationists have been battling these issues for many years.

Add climate change to the mix: extreme weather events, increasing temperatures, variable rainfall patterns, more hot days and fewer cold days. Often considered to be a future phenomenon, past and current observations provide evidence that the climate has already started to change, with impacts affecting communities, ecosystems and species. Climate projections indicate that time will further exacerbate these changes.

An Integrated Approach to Addressing Challenges in the High Mountains

With support from USAID, World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Conservation & Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountain Landscapes and Communities’ project is working with conservationists, communities and climate scientists to build resilience in the high mountain areas and snow leopard habitats of Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. A recent workshop in Kathmandu showcased challenges and solutions through presentations, research, discussions, photos and films. In essence, the focus of the workshop can be summarized in three words: nature, communities and climate. Training on climate change adaptation was the focus of the second half of the workshop, where participants were introduced to climate change challenges, vulnerability assessments, climate-smart conservation, climate projections and planning methods for conservation under various future scenarios.

Stories of Climate Impacts from the Field

Stories from the field shared at the workshop are testimonials to the impacts of climate change. The livelihoods and lives of people living in sensitive landscapes is impacted by the everyday challenges brought on by climate change. A documentary showcased the livelihood of the last yak herder of Dhe – a high mountain Nepalese village, where a changing climate has led to most herders leaving the village and looking for alternative sites to restart their lives. Photos were shown of abandoned villages, where inhabitants have moved to nearby locations as changes in climate pose harsh challenges to traditional mountain livelihoods such as herding.

In other areas, increased and faster melting of glaciers and snow are creating glacial lakes, which are at risk of bursting or overflowing, a phenomenon referred to as Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). These lakes at high elevation pose a major threat to downstream villages and infrastructure. Avalanches, landslides and erosion, already substantial threats throughout the region, are worsening with climate change. Increased sea level temperatures contribute to intensified cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal, where intense rain and snowfall have led to fatalities, such as the cyclone and blizzard in October 2014 that stranded and killed trekkers in Nepal’s Annapurna circuit. In Mongolia, zuds (or zhuds) are harsh winters that result in the death of livestock due to the lack of ability to forage. A few years ago, a summer drought followed by a zhud in Mongolia caused the deaths of over 8.5 million livestock.

Snow Leopards and Climate Change

Some of the best footage of snow leopards was seen in the Planet Earth documentary, where the quest to capture the magnificent species took months. This was probably the first time a wide audience was able to see this rare and endangered species in action. Only about 4,000-6,500 snow leopards remain in the 12 countries the species is limited to. While direct changes in the climate such as increased temperatures are unlikely to cause harm to snow leopards themselves, impacts of climate change on habitats and prey populations are likely to cause many challenges for the species. As mountain areas continue to warm, they could become more suitable for agriculture and livestock, causing greater overlap between human uses and snow leopard habitat, leading to increased wildlife conflict. Identifying and planning for these ever-evolving challenges, while attempting to minimize poaching, human-wildlife conflicts and habitat loss, will provide the best chance for snow leopard survival.

Climate-Smart Conservation

Shaun Martin, Head of the WWF-US Climate Change and Resilience team introduced the concept of ‘climatesmart conservation’ to the workshop participants. Conservationists traditionally focus on conserving existing areas, and often attempt to restore ecosystems back to previous conditions. He stressed that climate change will require a paradigm shift, where changing conditions need to be incorporated into planning and managing protected areas and landscapes.

First and foremost, activities should not be maladaptive, i.e. worsen impacts of climate change. For example planting trees with high water requirements in an area that is likely to become more drought-prone would be maladaptive. Secondly, conservation activities should be reviewed to identify if they need to be ‘climatesmart’. A few activities such as poaching do not have an immediate direct link to climate change, but many activities such as ecosystem restoration, removal of alien species, and wildlife corridors need to incorporate anticipated changes and complexities due to climate change.

Understanding how the climate in the area is expected to change is fundamental to planning conservation. For the Asia’s High Mountains project, the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University provided localized climate projections for field sites. Projections have a certain degree of uncertainty, but as Shaun explains, this simply means that there are a range of possible changes in climate, based on various development pathways and model variables. It does not in any way mean the science of climate change is uncertain. At the workshop, the general trends from literature and climate projections were used for a basic scenario-planning exercise where conservation activities were identified to suit changing variables such as early spring melt, delayed monsoon, increased rainfall and mild winters. Scenario planning is useful as it allows identification of actions that might be suitable under multiple climatic variables.

Providing Species and Ecosystems the Best Chance to Survive

Conservationists need to embrace the idea that species and ecosystems will be impacted by climate change and that many already are affected. Though difficult, it is necessary to recognize that ecosystems and landscapes are changing and that a paradigm shift in conservation is necessary, as ‘business as usual’ conservation that seeks to restore previous conditions is unlikely to be successful under a changing climate. To give species and ecosystems the best possible chance of surviving in a changing climate, incorporating climate-smart conservation into planning and action needs to begin now.