- Himachal Pradesh found a reliable population estimate of up to 73 snow leopards in its first scientific survey that mapped the animal using camera traps in high Himalayan mountain ranges.
- The survey will be used as a baseline for long-term monitoring of snow leopard population in the state and to track how conservation efforts affect their status.
- A bulk of snow leopard occurrence is outside protected areas, reiterating the need to foster a positive human-nature relationship.
Till recently, the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh (HP) was only making wild guesses about the population status of the snow leopard, the state animal of HP. After three years, the state has found a reliable population estimate of up to 73 snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in a first of its kind survey in the region that used camera traps and other scientific tools to reach the figure.
“This is a great number because it is reliable,” said Manvi Sharma, lead researcher at Bengaluru-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) that conducted the survey in collaboration with the wildlife wing of the HP Forest Department.
She said this survey used a two-step approach. In the first step, the entire snow leopard habitat of Himachal Pradesh that is spread over 26,000 sq km, was classified into different categories based on snow leopard distribution information.
Based on this classification, in the second step, camera-trapping surveys were conducted at 10 random sites (Bhaga, Chandra, Bharmour, Kullu, Miyar, Pin, Baspa, Tabo, Hangrang and Spiti) making sure that not only prime habitats, but all types of habitats were sampled for estimation, she added.
“The project took three years – we worked with 80 camera traps that were used in multiple locations. It is the only reliable estimate for the state of Himachal Pradesh. The estimates before this were guesses,” she informed.
With this survey, HP also accomplished the target envisaged by the central government under the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) project, which is the first-ever unified effort to estimate the snow leopard population across the country, particularly in places like Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, HP and Arunachal Pradesh where snow leopards are found. This exercise is in sync with the larger effort for the Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards which is being coordinated by the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program, which India is part of.
The effort stems out of the global community’s concern about the declining population of this golden-eyed animal having thick fur, padded paws and a long tail. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the snow leopard is classified as Vulnerable with its number in the wild decreasing mainly due to habitat loss, poaching, and the impacts of climate change.
Positive human-animal interaction need of the hour
While the latest survey will be used as a baseline for long-term monitoring of the snow leopard population and track how conservation efforts affect their status in future, it too has important findings. As the trans-Himalayan regions of Spiti and Pin, along with Upper Kinnaur regions, showed the highest densities of snow leopards, a bulk of snow leopard occurrence is outside government protected areas, therefore making them vulnerable to poaching or killings borne out of human-animal conflict.
“This mounts the conservation challenge and reiterates the need for active engagement of local communities in conservation programmes,” said NCF’s assistant programme head (High Altitudes) Ajay Bijoor. He said people in most of these parts have coexisted with wildlife and may do well if efforts allow for this spirit of coexistence to persist.
In HP there are examples of herders losing their livestock due to snow leopard attacks inside their corral, manifesting human-wildlife conflicts especially when government compensation is not adequate and slow.
Bijoor said that there are many ways in which negative interaction between people and wildlife can manifest. Many of the areas where people and wildlife co-exist are extremely remote too. “The mitigating of livestock damages by timely disbursement of government schemes can help conservation programme,” he added.
Read more: [Commentary] Conservation lessons from Changpa herders of Ladakh
On why should local communities come forward to be part of conservation programmes, Manvi Sharma said local communities have traditional relationships with their surroundings and nature. There is inherent respect towards all forms of life. There are already several groups in Lahaul Spiti and Kinnaur that work towards wildlife conservation in their villages, doing wonders, she said.
Sharma, however, added, “Along with conservation efforts involving the local community we also need robust monitoring of the status of the population of snow leopards and their prey on a long-term basis.”
“We need to identify threats that are specific to sites at a local level. Conservation efforts can then be tailored specifically to that location,” she added. Another survey finding is that the sites that had high densities of their main prey – blue sheep and ibex – were also the sites that reported the highest densities of snow leopards.
Anil Thakur, HP chief conservator of forest (wildlife), south area, told Mongabay-India that the survey is a guiding torch for them for effective conservation efforts on the ground. For instance, as the snow leopard population is outside protected areas, the officials need to create more conservation groups, especially in Upper Kinnaur region where the part outside protected areas is under the jurisdiction of the local administration unlike in Spiti where the entire area, whether within protected areas or outside, is under wildlife department, he said.
“While poaching is not prevalent in our areas, there are few killings of snow leopards when they accidentally enter into corrals of the herders. There we need to educate people, guide them to make their corrals more secure,” he added. On compensating herders for livestock loss, he said, sometimes there is a delay in disbursement due to lack of funds with district forest officers but in most cases, it is released in a month. “We will streamline it in near future,” he added.
Thakur said the impacts of climate change are a concern as there is the threat of shrinking habitats. “Therefore this survey is an important indicator for us to understand conservation issues at ground and implement them and reassess their numbers again in a few years from now,” he said.
Why do the snow leopards matter?
As Sharma explained, the snow leopard is a top-predator of the Indian Himalayas and its occurrence is regarded as an indicator of the ecological health of these unique high-altitude ecosystems. The snow leopard habitat of Himachal Pradesh sustains unique high-altitude cultures and is a source of local and regional ecosystem services, such as freshwater used by millions of people living downstream and in the plains. It is important to monitor the animal’s population on a long-term basis, she added.
Recently, the Lahaul-Spiti district administration banned car rallies in the Kibber wildlife sanctuary area of Spiti valley, media reported. Spotting snow leopard in Spiti is a popular tourist attraction in winter months.
Anil Thakur said that the snow leopards are indicators that the ecosystem, whether water bodies, goats and sheep, pasture lands and livelihood opportunities for local communities are in good health. If the snow leopards are declining, it means something is wrong within the ecosystem, he added.
Read more: How people respond to predators in the Indian Himalaya
Banner image: Camera trap image of snow leopard in HP upper reaches from surveys by NCF and HP forest department.