Asnow leopard (Panthera uncia), the elusive large cat which lives in the snow-bound ranges of the upper Himalayas, has finally been sighted in Uttarakhand. A specimen of this endangered species was caught on a camera trap for the first time on April 10, 2011, and again in June this year. (A “camera trap” is a camera placed in the wild, especially in areas that wild animals are known to frequent. These are activated by light or motion and are now widely used in animal census.)
The snow leopard, known for its beautiful greyish-black fur, is a solitary animal but is occasionally found in family groups. It breeds in winter and cubs (two to three) are born after a gestation of 90-100 days. Snow leopards are a highly endangered species, their numbers steadily depleting as a result of poaching fuelled by the international demand for their fur and bones, and retaliatory killings by farmers who fear the predators will kill their livestock. The fall in the population of their prey — herbivores such as the Himalayan blue sheep (or bharal, as they are known in these parts), musk deer (kasturi mrig) and Himalayan tahr (thar) — owing to competition for food from livestock, is another factor affecting snow leopards, experts say.
The carnivorous animals are found all over central Asia, from Mongolia to China, across the Hindu Kush mountains in the north-west to Sikkim in the south-east, covering an area spanning over two million square kilometres. There are between 4,500 and 6,000 of the big cats left in the wild today. In India, the snow leopard population is estimated to be around 500. In Uttarakhand, the “him bagh” or “tharuwa”, as it is called, is thought to live at altitudes over 3,000 metres. Its presence has been confirmed in Protected Areas such as the Nanda Devi, Valley of Flowers, Gangotri and Govind National Parks, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary and the buffer zones of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.
“For the scientific community, it was a great moment,” says S Sathyakumar, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). “In the past few years, we were afraid that the snow leopard had vanished from Uttarakhand. But now, we know that snow leopards are present in the snowy wilderness of the high altitude regions of Uttarakhand,” he adds. WII is working with the state forest department officials to conduct research on the snow leopard. It was a joint WII-state forest department team that captured the first camera-trap images of the snow leopard at Malari in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.
“The conservation of the snow leopard is globally significant, and so it was great achievement,” says Dr V B Mathur, the dean of WII.
Snow leopard is the apex predator in the Himalayan ecosystem and its conservation will help the entire eco-system of the upper Himalayas. The principal prey of the animals are the wild sheep and goat found in these regions, but it also hunts small mammals such as marmot (locally called pheya), pika (runda) and the Galliformes or heavy, terrestrial birds like snowcock, monal and snow partridge. It is also an opportunistic predator which sneaks up on domestic livestock such as goat and sheep grazing on the high-altitude pastures during summer, and this is what brings it into conflict with humans.
The Indian government initiated its first Project Snow Leopard in 1989, but it never took off. It started a second project in 2006 on the lines of Project Tiger in the five Himalayan states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The project is an ambitious one that is focussed on the snow leopard, but also seeks to safeguard the habitat of other high altitude wildlife species. It aims to promote participatory conservation practices and collate scientific information on the snow leopard and other wildlife species of the Indian Himalayas.