The effects of pastoralism on the behaviour of the Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana) in high altitude rangelands in Nepal

Buddi Sagar Poudel

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    Human–wildlife conflict is a growing concern around the world. In high altitude
    rangelands in Nepal, pastoralism is the main source of livelihood for most communities and the mainstay of many local economies. Pastoralism is pervasive and has a long history across the rangelands of the Trans-Himalaya. However, these high altitude rangelands also support a rich biodiversity and many endangered wildlife species. Therefore, efforts to better understand how livestock interact with native wildlife species is vital to resolve human–wildlife conflict and achieve better outcomes for wildlife conservation. The aim of this thesis was to investigate the ecology of the Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana), a small burrowing herbivore which is common in Nepal.
    Specifically, to investigate the effects of pastoralism on their diet, activity patterns, and their behavioural ecology.

    Vegetation surveys and faecal analysis of marmots and domestic livestock were carried out to investigate potential dietary overlap and resource competition. Marmots were found to be generalist herbivores that consumed a mixed diet in both spring and summer seasons. Non-metric multidimensional scaling showed a substantial difference in marmot diet between seasons, where spring diet consisted mainly of graminoids, whilst summer diet consisted mainly of forbs. This showed that marmots were using seasonal strategies to forage in response to plant availability. Nutritional analysis found that food quality was
    not a driver of marmot diet selection, rather quantity. Although analyses revealed a clear difference in diet composition between marmots and goats/sheep, seasonal changes in food availability, or increases in stocking densities, may result in increased competition for resources.

    The above ground activity patterns and foraging distances of marmots from their burrows was compared between areas experiencing high and low levels of pastoralism intensity. There was no significant difference between high and low pastoralism areas in either their total daily activity time or average foraging distance from burrows. However, marmots adjusted their diurnal patterns of activity and the distances moved from their burrows in relation to the timing of pastoralist activities by shifting their temporal niche. In general, marmots were less active when human disturbances were high, but compensated for this
    by increasing their activity and movements when disturbances were low. The vigilance behaviour of marmots was significantly influenced by pastoralism, where marmots looked up more often and devoted more time in vigilance in areas of high pastoralism as compared to low pastoralism sites. This study suggests that marmots adjust their vigilance behaviour according to perceived risk conditions associated with pastoralism.

    To investigate the effects of pastoralism on marmot behaviours further, an experimental test (before-during-after design) was carried out to evaluate behavioural change in the context of potential habituation. When disturbed by livestock, marmots reduced their foraging activities and increased their vigilance levels. After livestock had moved on from a marmot colony, the marmots mostly returned to their normal behaviour, however prolonged vigilance activity was observed. These results suggest that marmots have habituated to livestock to some extent, but still perceive the livestock grazing as a risk.

    Based on the results of this research, potential increases in livestock grazing pose a significant threat to marmots through disruptions in their normal behaviours and competition for food resources. These changes can have a significant impact on the survival of marmots in terms of meeting energy budgets to survive winter hibernation. Potential threats to the viability of marmot colonies can have flow-on effects to other endangered predators (e.g. Snow leopard) which depend on marmots as a food resource. Until now, management decisions of pastoralists are based on the supposition that wild herbivores such as marmots are forage competitors to livestock. This study challenges this assumption, and has demonstrated the importance of developing a better
    understanding of wildlife-livestock interactions, to devise strategies which ensure rangeland ecosystems in Nepal are managed in a sustainable manner. The results are discussed in terms of future research and practical applications.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Spooner, Peter, Co-Supervisor
    • Matthews, Alison, Co-Supervisor
    Award date01 Jul 2016
    Place of PublicationAustralia
    Publication statusPublished - 2016


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