Holy Help: Buddhist Monks Shielding Snow Leopards From Poachers

On the Tibetan plateau, the endangered big cats are being protected by hundreds of monasteries.

snow leopard monks rescue religion

Snow leopards are getting a much-needed dose of divine protection in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo: Getty Images)

Richard Conniff is the author of 'The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth' and other books.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has managed lately to be more outrageous than usual in his war to “eradicate the virus of religion.” And, to be fair, religion has given him plenty of fresh material to work with, from the criminal (arranged marriages that amount to religiously ordained child rape) to the comical (the recent warning by an Egyptian Salafi group that “Tomatoes are Christian”).

For environmentalists, however, it raises the question of whether this relentless assault on religion is really the best way to go about saving the world. No doubt religion has given us an endless supply of targets. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, for instance, attacked environmentalism as an attempt to “use pseudo-science” to destroy the freedom and “economies of the western world.” But Falwell was an outlier even among white evangelical Americans. A 2010 survey by the Pew Center for Religion and Public Policy found that 73 percent of them actually favor stronger environmental regulations. 

And now a new study from the other end of the Earth serves as a reminder that religion can sometimes be a powerful force to protect wildlife. Writing in the journal Conservation Biology, a research team, including the esteemed conservationist George Schaller, looks at how Buddhist monasteries help protect endangered snow leopards on the Tibetan Plateau.

The challenge with snow leopards is that they are famously elusive and inhabit some of the most difficult terrain on Earth—rocky, snow-covered slopes at elevations above 11,000 feet. Governments in this habitat may designate protected areas on paper, but they seldom follow through with adequate budgets or staff. 

For their study, the researchers focused on the region around Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve in China’s Qinghai Province along the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. They found that the reserve typically had two or three employees at each of the 21 conservation stations, only half of them full-time. They are responsible for protecting an area the size of Illinois, but with a terrain more like the Sawtooth Mountains. Just to keep it interesting, 76,000 people, mostly herders, also make their homes in the reserve.

The research team identified the routes along which snow leopards seem to travel through the region. Then they confirmed their presence, not by sight, a rare experience in that terrain, but by signs, including scrapes, scent marks, pug marks, and droppings (the last confirmed by DNA testing). They also located 81 Buddhist monasteries in or adjacent to snow leopard habitat—almost four times as many monasteries as official conservation stations, and with far more monks than rangers. Each monastery protected its own sacred mountain.

“We found that monasteries not only organized patrols of their sacred mountains,” the researchers write, “but also educated the local communities about environmental protection” with the Rinpoche, or monastery teacher, routinely discussing  “the Buddhist edicts concerning reverence for all life.” 

When the researchers interviewed local herders, “47% claimed they did not kill wildlife because the government prohibited it” and “42% said they did not kill wildlife because it was a sin in Buddhism.” More pragmatically, “28% said they did not kill wildlife because they did not have guns.” But many locals “swore an oath to their Rinpoche every year not to kill wildlife.”  (A separate study being published next month reports that sacred forests in the Himalayas are also essential for bird diversity.)

Dawkins would likely point out that reverence for all life isn’t always the best way to protect species. The research team reports, for instance, that the monasteries also shelter stray dogs, which can introduce disease and also compete with snow leopards for the blue sheep that are their main prey. Dawkins might also note that he has never particularly objected to Buddhism, because it tends to go light on the supernatural.

But the researchers point out that Buddhism is hardly the only religion to protect its sacred landscapes. Other biologists have also recently come to recognize sacred groves and forests in Ethiopia, India, Mozambique, Indonesia and many other countries as among the most important and effective means of protecting wildlife. An entire field of academic research has sprung up around the idea of strengthening the connection between conservation and faith, if only for highly practical reasons. Religions, says Yale University’s Mary Evelyn Tucker “are the largest NGOs in the world, and people have to understand that you can’t just ignore them.” Nor, like Dawkins, can you spend much of your intellectual energy making them look ridiculous, at least not if you hope to take advantage of the things religions can do well.

On the Tibetan Plateau, Schaller and his co-authors argue, a more sensible approach is to teach the local monks basic ecological know-how, including wildlife monitoring skills and effective patrolling techniques. More controversially, given our own ideas about the separation of church and state, they propose that local governments and reserves even confer some management rights to the monasteries, including the power to evict illegal miners and poachers from their holy sites.

What they are saying, Dawkins to the contrary, is that it’s sometimes smart to praise the lord and protect the wildlife.

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