People, predators and perceptions: patterns of livestock depredation by snow leopards and wolves.
Livestock depredation by large carnivores is an important conservation and economic concern and conservation management would benefit from a better understanding of spatial variation and underlying causes of depredation events. Focusing on the endangered snow leopard Panthera uncia and the wolf Canis lupus, we identify the ecological factors that predispose areas within a landscape to livestock depredation. We also examine the potential mismatch between reality and human perceptions of livestock depredation by these carnivores whose survival is threatened due to persecution by pastoralists. We assessed the distribution of the snow leopard, wolf and wild ungulate prey through field surveys in the 4000 km2 Upper Spiti Landscape of trans-Himalayan India. We interviewed local people in all 25 villages to assess the distribution of livestock and peoples' perceptions of the risk to livestock from these carnivores. We monitored village-level livestock mortality over a 2-year period to assess the actual level of livestock depredation. We quantified several possibly influential independent variables that together captured variation in topography, carnivore abundance and abundance and other attributes of livestock. We identified the key variables influencing livestock depredation using multiple logistic regressions and hierarchical partitioning. Our results revealed notable differences in livestock selectivity and ecological correlates of livestock depredation - both perceived and actual - by snow leopards and wolves. Stocking density of large-bodied free-ranging livestock (yaks and horses) best explained people's threat perception of livestock depredation by snow leopards, while actual livestock depredation was explained by the relative abundance of snow leopards and wild prey. In the case of wolves, peoples' perception was best explained by abundance of wolves, while actual depredation by wolves was explained by habitat structure. Synthesis and applications. Our results show that (i) human perceptions can be at odds with actual patterns of livestock depredation, (ii) increases in wild prey populations will intensify livestock depredation by snow leopards, and prey recovery programmes must be accompanied by measures to protect livestock, (iii) compensation or insurance programmes should target large-bodied livestock in snow leopard habitats and (iv) sustained awareness programmes are much needed, especially for the wolf.