Meet Aishwarya Maheshwari who spends most of his time tracking the snow leopard in the Himalayas and working towards its conservation

Harrowing weather, logistical issues, altitude, frostbite, shortage of food — these are just some of the problems he faces up in the mountains. And yet, Aishwarya Maheswari, who is now an assistant coordinator with TRAFFIC, has spent the majority of the last six years wandering across them, tracking the elusive snow leopard.

According to Aishwarya, it’s difficult to gauge Snow Leopard numbers since they are spread across the vast mountain ranges spanning twelve countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Their population is estimated to be between 4,500 to 7,500. An endangered species, the snow leopard, too, has fallen into the trafficking trap. And Aishwarya, through his research, has spent a large chunk of time studying the animal and its habitat in order to help in its conservation. “The first process is to gather information on trafficking and human conflicts with the animal, and then see how it can be mitigated,” Aishwarya says.

His father’s transferable job took Aishwarya across Uttar Pradesh in his childhood. And as he grew up, his thirst for travel heightened. “So, I applied for a Masters Degree in Wildlife Sciences at Aligarh University,” he smiles. Leopards came into his life at this time, when he was studying the common leopard in Gir. “During weekends, I would take my backpack, catch a bus and go wherever it took me. And my first trip to the Himalayas, to Uttarkashi was so fascinating that I wanted to keep going back and explore the Himalayas,” says Aishwarya.

He then joined the Wildlife Institute of India as a research scholar, where he studied the ecology of the brown bear in the Chambal valley and worked on Project Tiger. In 2008, he joined WWF India and has since surveyed the Himalayas for snow leopards. “I wanted to explore areas that were previously unexplored and so we conducted a cross-country survey and identified certain pockets.”

For his Ph.D. thesis on the conservation of snow leopards with special reference to snow leopard-human conflicts, Aishwarya went to Kargil, to track leopards in the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Sanctuary and Gangotri National Park. It is here that he had his first sighting. “We were exploring some areas in collaboration with the Jammu and Kashmir Department of Wildlife. The team was about to camp and spotted a group of ibex. We noticed dust in the air and in a few moments, we were witness to a snow leopard unsuccessfully trying to hunt an ibex.” Aishwarya has spotted this elusive cat five other times.

He headed Project Snow Leopard between 2008-2013. “Before my work, we did not know that Kargil or Uttarakhand were possible snow leopard sites,” he says. It has also helped find possible human-animal conflict zones. “There is a resurgence of wildlife near the LOC and this causes conflict. Also, people in the mountains are agro-pastoral. When the snow leopard feeds on their livestock, it is a huge loss. They seek revenge. We provide livestock pens so that they are protected and predators can’t enter and conduct awareness programmes about the species in schools and colleges.” He stresses that snow leopards are gentle creatures, “I have had a single report of a snow leopard attacking a human being. They are shy. It is said that there area about 400-700 of them in the Indian territory, spread across five states.”

He also led the Illegal Snow Leopard Trade Project in five states along with their state forest departments. With TRAFFIC, he now hopes to protect the species from trafficking. “It is just as difficult to put numbers against snow leopard trafficking as it is to count them. Whatever we have are from media reports across the 12 countries,” he says.

But how is it to work for months together in hostile conditions? “But I don’t see them as challenges. You forget everything when you sight or glimpse the snow leopard,” he smiles. “Whenever I take the flight from Leh to Delhi, I always feel sad. I want to stay in the mountains permanently.”