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Snow Leopards in the Himalayas

By Arka Chakarborty

The vast swathes of Himalayan regions within the Indian subcontinent have been of immense interest not only among geography enthusiasts but also among tourists the world over. While most of us are infatuated with the snowy peaks, sparkling water bodies and picturesque landscapes of these high-altitude spaces, the rich wealth of fauna that has, for millions of years, evolved to adapt to the harsh climatic realities of the Himalayas do not get enough public attention. Positive public awareness about these creatures is more necessary than ever given the rising wave of climate change which can have catastrophic effects not only on the survival of these natural mountain-dwellers but the more numerous inhabitants of the plains as well. Fortunately, one of these Himalayan creatures lately receiving positive attention is the snow leopard. This elusive member of the big cat family is an apex predator and can be viewed as an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem it inhabits. Found in around twelve Asian countries, a significant section of the snow leopard’s population calls Ladakh its home and was recently declared its new state animal.

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a member of the Felidae family. It is sometimes also called ounce. An average snow leopard weighs around 60-120 lbs and is around 2-5 feet in length (World Wildlife Fund). Its signature coat consists of a dense insulating undercoat and a heavy overcoat comprising hairs which are 5 cm (2 inches) in length (Britannica). The snow leopard’s coat is white-grey in color and has black rosettes. The appearance of the snow leopard helps it to camouflage itself in the rocky, barren Himalayan mountain environment so that it is almost invisible in certain situations. Hence, snow leopard is often called ‘the ghost of the mountain.’ The strong build of the snow leopard allows it to scale difficult cliffs with relative ease. Its powerful hind legs enable it to jump six times higher than its own body length. Its long tail provides it agility and balance and also generates warmth when it sleeps by wrapping around its body (World Wildlife Fund). This efficient predator can also hunt prey up to three times its own weight. Its large, furry paws help distribute its body weight and prevent it from sinking into the snow (International Fund for Animal Welfare). The relatively smaller skull and more-rounded eye orbits of the snow leopard distinguish it from other big cats and this is the reason why it is considered to be the sole member of the genus Uncia (Britannica). Unlike other big cats, the snow leopard cannot roar (Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust).

The snow leopard roams high, in the mountainous terrain. Members of the species live at a height of around 1800 meters (6000 feet) during winter and around 5500 meters (18000 feet) during summer (Britannica). The total habitat range of the species is around 772,204 square miles spread across twelve Asian countries, namely, Kyrgyz republic, Kazakhstan, Mongolia,

Tajikistan, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Bhutan, China, India and Afghanistan. Around 60% of this total range is based in China. About 70% of the total range of the snow leopard remains unexplored. The home range of an individual snow leopard varies widely, ranging from 4.6 to 15.4 square miles in Nepal to around 193 square miles in Mongolia (World Wildlife Fund). The estimated total population of the snow leopard is disputed, some sources claiming it to be between 4000 and 6500 individuals (World Wildlife Fund) while others placing it between 3500 and 7000 individuals (Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust). Globally, the population density of the snow leopard varies between 0.1 to 10 individuals per 38.6 square miles (World Wildlife Fund). In India, the population of the snow leopard is around 500, distributed across states and Union Territories like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Kashmir and Ladakh (Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust). Specifically, the snow leopard can be seen in the following national parks in India, namely, Gangotri National Park, Valley of Flowers National Park, Nanda Devi National Park, Govind Pashu Vihar National Park (Uttarakhand), Great Himalayan National Park, Pin Valley National park (Himachal Pradesh), Namdapha National Park (Arunachal Pradesh), Khangchendzonga National Park (Sikkim), Dachigam National Park (Kashmir) and Hemus National Park (Ladakh) (Srovastava, 2021). Within India, the largest concentration of snow leopards is in Ladakh, numbering around 200- 300 individuals (FP Trending, 2021; IANS, 2022). Every country where the snow leopard is present has one or more indigenous names for the creature. In the Hindi language spoken mainly in India, this silent hunter is known as ‘barfani chita’ and ‘him tendua’ (Snow Leopard Trust).

Although called the snow leopard, the Himalayan hunter is related more to the tiger. Around 3.9 million years ago, the common ancestor of the snow leopard and the tiger separated from other big cats and around 3.2 million years ago, the snow leopard and the tiger became distinct (Britannica). The snow leopard is a lone hunter. It is most active during dawn and dusk. Its natural camouflage helps it to stalk its prey. The natural preys of the snow leopard comprise the blue sheep, marmots, ibex, pikas and hare (World Wildlife Fund). While the creature prefers to be alone, it can be seen in pairs during the mating season. A female snow leopard generally gives birth to two to four cubs after a gestation period of around ninety-three days. She then proceeds to raise her litter alone. After about eighteen months, the cubs leave their mother, looking to establish their own home ranges (Snow Leopard Trust).

In India, Ladakh is usually identified as the home of the snow leopard. However, recently it has come to the media’s attention as Ladakh’s new state animal. Ladakh used to be a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, in 2019, the state was bifurcated and turned into two separate Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir on one hand and Ladakh on the other. With the bifurcation emerged a number of administrative questions: the state animals and birds of each new UT being one of them. The old state of Jammu and Kashmir had the Hangul or Kashmiri Stag and the black-necked crane as its state animal and bird respectively. After the bifurcation, it was decided that as the black-necked crane was seen mainly in the Ladakh region, it would serve as the state bird of the same. However, as the Kashmiri Stag was designated as the state animal of the new J&K UT, the issue of a state animal for Ladakh came to the fore (IANS, 2022). In this situation, on September 1, 2021, the Ladakh Union Territory administration declared the snow leopard as its state animal and the black-necked crane as its state bird. A notification to this effect was issued by the Principal Secretary, Forest, Ecology and Environment Department on behalf of the Lieutenant Governor Pawan Kotwal (FP Trending, 2021).

The snow leopard was designated as a ‘Endangered’ species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List from 1986 to 2017. This status was changed to ‘Vulnerable’ in 2017 when a technical error was spotted in the population calculation of the species’ 2008 population assessment (Britannica). This, however, does not signify an improvement in the condition of the creature. A number of interrelated factors threaten the safety and existence of snow leopards. Climate change may be deemed as the chief threat to the species, as well as almost every other species of Himalayan flora and fauna. Rising temperatures can affect the productivity of the alpine habitat the snow leopard is a part of which, in turn, might negatively influence the prey population (World Wildlife Fund). Human intervention is another major reason behind the decline of the snow leopard’s population. This may be classified into a number of distinct factors. Poaching the snow leopard for its beautiful fur and also for its bones and body parts which are used to produce traditional medicine is a heinous reality. In fact, the demand for these products seems to be increasing (World Wildlife Fund). Another major area of human intervention is the retaliatory killings carried out by local farmers. The snow leopard is generally reputed not to be hostile towards humans (Snow Leopard Trust) but the same cannot be said for livestock. The natural prey for the snow leopard is decreasing because of hunting of them by humans (World Wildlife Fund) and/or the scarcity of pastures caused by the increase of livestock in the mountainous region (Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust). This leads the snow leopards to prey on the livestock such as goats, sheep and yak calves. They also have the tendency of injuring or killing multiple livestock in a single attack. As the farmers and pastoralists often consider their livestock to be one of the chief or only sources of their income, they consider the snow leopard as a pest and carry out retaliatory killings of the same (World Wildlife Fund). Mining and hydroelectric projects are some of the more recent threats to the snow leopard (Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust).

The snow leopard is considered to be an Umbrella or Keystone species which means that it can be seen as an indicator for the overall health of the biodiversity of the region it inhabits (Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust). The decrease of the snow leopard population may lead to an increase in the natural herbivore population of the Himalayas which might result in an overall ecological imbalance in the region, affecting the quality of freshwater and consequently endangering the health and lives of the inhabitants of the plains. Hence, the conservation of the snow leopard is crucial. Globally, the World Wildlife Fund is trying to jointly prevent the poaching and trafficking of snow leopard body parts in collaboration with the organization TRAFFIC. It also tries to work with the Eastern Himalayan communities by conducting awareness workshops (World Wildlife Fund). In India, specifically in Ladakh, the Snow Leopard Conservation – India Trust (SLC-IT) has devised a number of methods to protect the snow leopard. Recognizing the threat that community-driven retaliatory killings pose to the Felid, the SLC-IT has collaborated with a number of Ladakhi villages to install stronger pens with roofs which protect the livestock from snow leopard attacks. Moreover, the organization has worked with local communities to innovate new sources of income for them such as Ecocafes, handicrafts and solar showers. Raising awareness about the ecological importance of the snow leopard among local communities, the SLC-IT has also boosted the hospitality industry in Ladakh by using the snow leopard as a symbol of tourist attraction and a portion of the income generated from this industry also goes to the Himalayan village communities. These measures have helped to change the perception about the snow leopard and today to many members of these communities the snow leopard is not a pest but an asset (Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust). The Indian government is working towards ensuring the survival of the snow leopard in its Himalayan states and UTs. In 2009, the Project Snow Leopard was launched for this purpose. Since 2013, India has also been a member of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) programme. India hosted the 4 th Steering Committee of the GSLEP at New Delhi in October 2019 which led to the ‘New Delhi Statement’ of strengthening the resolve of snow leopard range countries towards conservation of the mountain ecosystems of Central and South Asia. In 2020, the Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Shri Babul Supriyo, while speaking at a virtual meeting hosted on the International Snow Leopard Day, said that the Government is committed to landscape restoration for snow leopard habitat conservation, and implementing participatory landscape-based management plans involving local stakeholders (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, 2020).

The snow leopard is a majestic Himalayan hunter, one of the few mountain-dwelling species that has received some well-deserved public attention. However, the significance of conserving this creature and the urgency for the same are facts that are yet to have an impact on the general populace. While numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations are doing their best to ensure the protection of the species, greater awareness among people will go a long way in ensuring its survival. The declaration of the snow leopard as the state animal of the Ladakh Union Territory is a positive step towards bringing the ghost of the mountains to the limelight.


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