Written by: Zara Morris-Trainor, the University of Aberdeen



Last July I had the opportunity to present on my PhD research at the International Congress of Conservation Biology Conference (ICCB 2017) in Cartagena, Colombia. This was the first time I’d presented on my PhD research and the ICCB was certainly a dive into the deep end. Over 1400 participants from 75 countries had gathered in the vibrant, historic city of Colombia’s Caribbean coast to share the latest research findings and to discuss the challenges facing conservation in 2017. The focus of this year’s conference was sustainability. The theme – ‘Insights for sustaining life on earth’ – was a response to ‘the need for conservation science to help create a better tomorrow for both biodiversity and people who depend upon it’. The relevance of this theme to my PhD research was part of the reason I was so keen to attend the conference and to present some of my own findings and insights for achieving sustainability.

My PhD has taken me to the remote rangelands of Mongolia, where I am working with the Snow Leopard Trust to investigate the social drivers and ecological impacts of rising numbers of cashmere goats. International demand for cashmere, one of the world’s most luxury fibres, is resulting in overstocked rangelands and pasture degradation with potentially negative consequences for herder livelihoods and native wildlife. Concurrently, the changing social, economic and political environment that the semi-nomadic pastoralists of Mongolia now find themselves in is impacting the sustainability of their grazing practices. I am exploring these changes in the Tost Nature Reserve, a mountain massive in the South Gobi that is an important area for cashmere production but also a stronghold for wildlife, including the threatened snow leopard. Given the strong links between the human and natural components of the Nature Reserve, I am utilising a social-ecological approach to explore several aspects of the Tost system to investigate the current sustainability of grazing practices and to explore options for improving the compatibility of livestock production and wildlife conservation.


At the conference I presented preliminary findings from a recent study in which I’ve been exploring the barriers and opportunities for sustainable production in the Tost Nature Reserve. Through a mixture of questionnaires, in-depth qualitative interviews and archived census data, I’ve determined local population trends in people and livestock, mapped the local cashmere production chain and identified the key production challenges currently facing Tost herders. I found evidence of increased goat numbers, declining mobility of herders, increased crowding around water sources and green areas, along with some indication of out-of-season grazing and pasture degradation. Most herders are limiting their herd size in some way, suggesting they do hold some form of the carrying capacity concept. The main drivers of their decisions to increase their herd sizes were maximising profit, the devaluation of other livestock products, increasing living expenses, the ability to supplementary feed and the current market demand for cashmere quantity as appose to quality. The main constraints they faced for increasing herd size were water and pasture capacity, labour and available work force, risk of bad weather and the health condition of the goats. I discovered that most herders do not think that there are too many goats in Tost, and they don’t think that livestock present a threat to wildlife. However, they acknowledge that livestock displace wildlife from their preferred habitat. When it came to overgrazing I found that some herders didn’t think there was a problem at all whilst others referred it as a crisis. These differences in opinion will prove a challenge for collective range management, as they reveal a lack of communication and awareness between herders about the different situations they are facing across the Nature Reserve.


Reflecting on my findings at the ICCB, it is clear that there are multiple barriers to sustainability and the trends appear to be heading in an unsustainable direction. This has implications for herder livelihoods and wildlife conservation, and suggests that unsustainable cashmere production represents a growing threat, both to people and to snow leopards. However, whilst identifying barriers my study also revealed opportunities for sustainable production that can be addressed with future interventions. For example, we can work with existing herder cooperatives to improve their governance, facilitate knowledge sharing, develop contracts with buyers to reduce vulnerability to price fluctuations and set up cashmere improvement breeding programs. In addition, we are currently looking into the development of a sustainable cashmere project for Tost where we develop a sustainability standard and encourage the adoption of wildlife friendly grazing practices through the use of incentives. Discussions have commenced with the Sustainable Fibre Alliance, a non-profit umbrella organisation aiming to bring together stakeholders along the cashmere supply chain to reduce the social and ecological impacts of unsustainable cashmere production.

My key insight for sustainability…the one message I felt was most important to highlight at the closing of my presentation…was the importance of adopting a social-ecological systems approach for large carnivore conservation. Snow leopards are just one part of the whole, and efforts to conserve them will continue to be in vain if we fail to take into account the wider context and interactions between humans and nature. In my study this means looking at cashmere, but these lessons apply for endangered species all over the globe…inside and outside protected areas. Taking this approach reveals the barriers that we face, but more importantly the steps we can take to foster coexistence between people and wildlife.