Communities in mountain regions, who often live near wildlife and are dependent on crops and livestock, are faced with great hardships. As dry seasons get longer and water for irrigation gets scarcer, conflicts over natural resources arise between local mountain communities and animals.
In its recent report The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the need for transformative changes to restore and protect nature. We can’t meet climate ambition without halting biodiversity loss, its authors said. Wildlife in high mountain areas is particularly at risk. These fragile ecosystems are experiencing drastic changes in snow cover, permafrost and glaciers due to global heating.
To protect vulnerable mountain species, conserve mountain ecosystems and their biodiversity, Vanishing Treasures—a project implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners—was launched in 2018. The project operates in various mountain regions, including the Virungas (Uganda, Rwanda), the Himalayas (Bhutan) and Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Through its work, the goal of Vanishing Treasures is to help these regions contribute towards Sustainable Development Goal 15, Life on Land and Goal 13, Climate Action.
In Bhutan, Vanishing Treasures is working to enhance the understanding of climate change impacts on the Royal Bengal tiger and its habitats, and to address knowledge gaps. The project aims to integrate knowledge about the climate crisis into tiger habitat management and promote climate-smart conservation practices. It also aims to help communities living near tiger habitats by supporting ecosystem-based adaptation (e.g. in the context of water and agriculture) to reduce impact and pressure on the tigers and their habitats.
In Rwanda and Uganda, Vanishing Treasures focuses on mountain gorillas and plans to work with the authorities and adjacent communities in the Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda), the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda).
“Despite significant research, there remain knowledge gaps about the impact of climate change on mountain gorillas and surrounding human communities,” says UNEP great apes expert Johannes Refisch.
“While there is no evidence of the direct impact of global heating on mountain gorillas, there are many secondary impacts. A warmer and wetter climate with more erratic rainfall and longer dry spells is having a huge impact on communities living around the gorillas’ habitat. For example, people enter the park in search of drinking water, increasing the risk of disease transmission and disturbing the habitat. High human population density, and an increasing number of gorillas (of which many are becoming habituated to seeing humans), leads to human-wildlife conflict,” he adds.
Vanishing Treasures aims to better understand the diverse impacts of climate change on communities and gorillas and their habitats, as well as current and possible future vulnerabilities and responses. A pilot project will address human-wildlife conflict, create sustainable buffer zones and improve land management, among other interventions, ultimately to ensure the coexistence of people and wildlife.
“National consultative meetings with international and local partners were used to present the selected project pilot sites and discuss implementation activities within these sites—for example research on snow leopards and their prey (e.g. the long-tailed marmot) and strategies to improve the coexistence of wildlife and people,” says UNEP mountain ecosystems expert Matthias Jurek.
Snow leopards in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
Despite living in very remote regions, the snow leopard is now threatened by increasing human encroachment and the effects of global heating.
As top predators, snow leopards play an important role in regulating the populations of their prey and, in doing so, maintain healthy, high mountain landscapes. Snow leopards are also an “umbrella species”, meaning that protecting the snow leopard and its habitats can have positive effects for the conservation of other species including the grey wolf, brown bear, Eurasian lynx and others, as well as the places they inhabit.
This iconic species was recently filmed in Kyrgyzstan. The video, posted on social media, received a lot of attention.
The 2018–2022 Vanishing Treasures project, funded by the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, aims to generate maximum synergy between climate change adaptation and biodiversity conservation by improving the adaptive capacity of mountain ecosystems while maintaining related ecosystem services, by protecting mountain flagship species that are key to ecosystem functioning and by promoting alternative livelihoods for local communities.
The project is being implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with the Great Apes Survival Partnership and UNEP’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit. Partners include GRID-Arendal, the Association of Nature Conservation Organizations of Tajikistan, Ilbirs Foundation, BOKU University, the Global Tiger Centre of Bhutan, the Snow Leopard Trust, the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration Secretariat, and others.
International Mountain Day 2019 on 11 December promotes the idea that mountain regions—which provide 60–80 per cent of the Earth's fresh water—and mountain peoples, should receive more attention, investments and tailored research.