A big cat’s skin that no one saw is behind the survey of the ‘ghost of the mountains’ in India’s easternmost tiger reserve.
The snow leopard has never been spotted nor recorded in the Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district. The 1,985 sq. km reserve bordering Myanmar has an elevation varying from 200 metres to 4,571 metres above sea level.
However, wildlife officials in the State are eagerly awaiting the analysis of the data of a survey conducted in 2021 to ascertain the presence of the elusive snow leopard, often referred to as a mountain ghost because of its coat that helps it blend in a snowy-rocky environment.
“We provided all the data of the survey to the World Wide Fund for Nature earlier this year. We expect the results by November,” Milo Tassar, the deputy conservator of forest (Wildlife) told The Hindu on Thursday.
The data was collected from a high-altitude Himalayan belt across 11 wildlife divisions from Tawang in the west and Anini to the east.
Namdapha is the known home of three other large cats — tiger, leopard and clouded leopard. The belief that the national park is also the habitat of the snow leopard is based on the claim of a hunter from the Lisu ethnic community that he possessed the skin of the carnivore.
“A person in Vijaynagar (close to Myanmar border, in Changlang district) had described having a skin that could have been of a snow leopard. He called it Lamaphu, which is possibly the local name for a snow leopard. The tiger is called Lama in the Lisu dialect,” Aparajita Datta of Nature Conservation Foundation-India said.
“But that person did not have the skin as it was destroyed when his house caught fire,” she added.
Camera traps a decade ago had established the presence of snow leopards in Arunachal Pradesh. But the possibility of the animal inhabiting Namdapha gained currency after A.K. Chatterjee, a former park official and S.S Chandiramani published a paper in the ‘Tiger Paper’ journal in 1986.
No real evidence was provided about the animal’s presence in Namdapha in the report. The park authorities maintained a checklist that mentions “reports of skin with Lisus”.
“I believe the presence of a snow leopard is uncertain in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh but more intensive scientific surveys may yield some result,” a researcher associated with the State Forest Department said.
He also said wildlife officials should have probed the skin claim deeper, as it could have been from another part of the State or even from certain areas of Myanmar or China where the Lisu people live.
A section of the Lisus, known for their unique hunting skills, were often in conflict with the Forest officials. This began changing in 2005 when the Union Environment Ministry’s Tiger Task Force recommended using the community’s hunting expertise in the conservation efforts.