Snow leopard photo

You may want to think twice before you purchase your next cashmere sweater.

The number of domestic cashmere goats farmed in Central Asia has nearly tripled over the last 20 years due to an increased global demand for the goats’ velvety fur coats, leading to a decline in the already endangered population of snow leopards.

A new study by the Conservation Biology journal reveals that the rising number of goats is intruding on the habitat of snow leopards and their prey.  Herbivores like the Tibetan antelope, saiga, wild yak, and Przewalski’s horse (all prey to snow leopards) are dying of starvation because they are competing for food with domestic goats who are overrunning the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia, and northern India.

The decline in snow leopards’ natural prey leads them to kill and eat the domestic goats instead, which in turn leads to retaliatory killings of snow leopards by goat farmers protecting their animals.

It’s a tricky situation because cashmere production has traditionally played a crucial role in the livelihoods of indigenous communities in Mongolia, Tibet and India.  While locals are trying to make ends meet by farming cashmere goats, short-term economic profits are causing damage to the local ecosystem.

Many solutions have been proposed.  Consumer awareness can be cultivated with “green labeling” of cashmere products. Policies could be implemented that make cashmere goat grazing more sustainable and allow native animals and domestic animals to co-exist more harmoniouslyPromotion of ecotourism through tours to snow leopard habitat in Mongolia incentivizes indigenous communities to protect the wildlife and habitat that ecotourists are willing to pay a lot of money to see.  Because of the consistent and rewarding economic benefits provided by ecotourism, local communities are quickly becoming stakeholders that actively assist in the protection of snow leopard habitat, rather than exploiting their natural resources to sell cashmere.

What do you think is the best solution?

For more on this story, read Snow leopards and wild yaks becoming ‘fashion victims’ via The Guardian.