Footfalls in the flurry: tracking the elusive snow leopard in Himachal Pradesh

First such enumeration stresses that local communities are the strongest allies in conservation

February 27, 2021 07:38 pm | Updated 11:18 pm IST - CHANDIGARH:

A snow leopard. File

A snow leopard. File

Himachal Pradesh’s high-altitude hilly terrains could be harbouring as many as 73 snow leopards ( Panthera uncia ), says a recent study based on a scientific enumeration of the elusive animal. Snow leopards are one of the most endangered wildlife species. The study observed that local communities are the strongest allies in conservation.

The first-ever such study on snow leopards, a top predator of the Indian Himalaya, was completed in January by the Himachal Pradesh Wildlife Department and the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF).

“We are the pioneers in getting snow leopards count done in a scientific manner in the country. Till now, it was only a guess work surrounding the population of snow leopards. But now we have numbers which are reliable. We detected 44 individual snow leopards at 187 occasions in this study. From this dataset of 44 individuals, we estimated that the snow leopard population size is likely to be 51 individuals and this population can be reliably estimated to be up to 73 individuals, excluding cubs. This is an encouraging count,” Archana Sharma, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife), told The Hindu .

In Himachal Pradesh, the snow leopard’s habitat covers a greater part of the districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur. Its potential habitat also extends into the upper regions of the districts of Shimla, Kullu, Chamba and Kangra. Most of these areas are remote, with the added challenge of limited accessibility during winter.

The wildlife wing of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department commenced the snow leopard enumeration project in 2018, with techniques aligned to the protocols prescribed by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change under the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI). This protocol is being used to estimate the snow leopard population in all the States where the species is found.

“This project is the first systematic effort at a large regional scale that utilised a stratified sampling design to estimate the snow leopard population over an area of 26,112 sq. km. The entire snow leopard habitat of the State [of Himachal Pradesh] was first stratified into three categories — high, low or unknown snow leopard occurrence, based on questionnaire surveys of local communities residing in these areas. Camera trap surveys were then carried out in areas under each of the categories,” Ajay Bijoor, assistant programme director of NCF’s high altitude programme told The Hindu .

He added that the camera trapping surveys were conducted at 10 sites to representatively sample all the strata. Snow leopards were detected at all 10 sites, suggesting that the species is found across the entire snow leopard habitat in Himachal Pradesh.

The population of the primary wild ungulate prey of snow leopards — blue sheep and ibex — for the entire snow leopard habitat was assessed by using the double observer survey technique. “We found that the snow leopard density was positively correlated with the wild prey density, indicating that higher wild prey densities corresponded to higher snow leopard densities. Spiti and Tabo recorded the highest densities of both snow leopards and their prey, while Chandra and Bharmour recorded the lowest densities of both snow leopards and their prey,” he said.

The entire camera trapping exercise was led by a team of eight local youth of Kibber village in Spiti, who have been working on such surveys across the upper Spiti landscape since 2010.

45-year-old Tanzin Thinley, who hails from Kibber village and has been associated with the NCF, firmly believes that conservation of the snow leopard would be easy with the participation of local communities.

“Snow leopards at times attack the livestock of villagers, which causes a sense of animosity against them. They attack livestock when they don’t find wild prey. Over the past few years, NCF has tried to convince villagers to get their livestock insured. This has helped in a way that in case anyone has lost livestock to snow leopards, the sense of anguish against the animal is not there, eventually helping in its conservation. We are making people understand that if snow leopards disappear then the number of blue sheep and ibex (snow leopard prey) will increase manifold, posing a threat to their crops. It’s important to save leopards so that a healthy ecosystem continues to prevail. The snow leopard’s presence is an indicator of good ecological health,” Mr. Thinley said.

The study points out that the results provide a robust baseline for the wildlife wing to set up a long-term monitoring project to track the population of snow leopards and their wild prey species. The results reiterate, the study said, that local communities are the strongest allies in conservation, if their concerns can be factored into conservation planning.

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