Kiwi petitions for snow leopard sanctuary in the Southern Alps

A petition has been put forward to create a snow leopard sanctuary in the South Island.
A petition has been put forward to create a snow leopard sanctuary in the South Island. Photo credit: Getty

A petition has been put forward to create a snow leopard sanctuary in the South Island of New Zealand - an idea scientists have called "risky".

Brian Daly of Hastings is petitioning the Ministry for the Environment to create a sanctuary as "ecological back-up" for the threatened species that are endemic to Central and South Asia. 

He wants a private landowner in the high country near the Southern Alps to give up land for the safe haven. 

In his petition, he writes the sanctuary could provide "an important tourism initiative where people can view them more easily than in their native environment".

The snow leopard species would help keep the Tahr population in check without the expense of Department of Conservation control, Mr Daly says.

"Each animal would be tagged and tracked so that tourists could be helicoptered to positions to view them," he explained.

"This would be the only naturally living population of snow leopard outside of the Himalayas."

He also believed this would be another way to boost historical ties between New Zealand and the Himalayan region.

"Ideally, I believe this initiative would be adopted by a private land owner - such as a high country station or neighbouring stations - that back up to the alps and would provide a useful secondary income to the region, while also providing a redundancy option if the population in the Himalayas is decimated by people or disease," Mr Daly says.

Scientists at the University of Canterbury have pointed out the riskiness of the idea.  

Animal behaviour expert, Associate Professor Ximena Nelson says "This kind of suggestion as an experiment with an apex predator is extremely foolhardy in a place like New Zealand, where we know full well the impacts of bringing in predators for which our species have no evolved anti-predator defences."

Fellow Associate Professor Elissa Cameron says while they will eat a variety of animals, including tahr, a big problem would be trying to contain the animals.

"Containing big cats also presents logistical difficulties which would be another challenge to such a proposal. Zoos still have escapes.

"The fenced National Parks in South Africa have frequent breakouts of lions, and leopards move in and out of these game-fenced areas."

Science communicator Matt Walters agreed, saying because the Southern Alps is an extremely diverse area, it would be "impossible" to contain them.

"Snow leopards come from an arid environment - our Southern Alps are a wetter environment, even the drier bits - so it would not be that similar to their native environment.

"They are known to prey on birds such as the snow cock and the Chukar partridge, so would likely also prey on our native species such as the endangered kea, the only alpine parrot species in the world. 

"Breeding would have to be managed. Genetics of small populations is complex and can lead to negative consequences, such as inbreeding," Mr Walters says.

On Thursday the petition had close to 1400 signatures. 

One signatory says "This will create an amazing tourist attraction to New Zealand and will create unforgettable memories".

Another says "Great idea! Leopards need a safe place".