The elusive snow leopards (Panthera uncia), found in the rugged and remote mountains of Central and South Asia, are today fighting for their survival against the odds of climate change, dwindling prey populations, habitat fragmentation, poaching and attacks from feral dogs. As apex predators, they sit on top of the food chain in these high altitude ecosystems. They are a flagship species here, and conserving them ensures the protection of the entire ecosystem. Aptly called the ‘ghost of the mountains’, the snow leopards are not easy to spot. Today, somewhere between 500 and 700 of them are found in the Indian Himalayas.
“When I reached the site, I was mesmerised and excited to see two cats sitting at a stone’s throw away from me. After some time, they walked gracefully across a tawny slope, and I could still see one of them at a distance. However, after some ten minutes, it suddenly disappeared. There were no rocks, no bushes to hide behind”, recounts Dr Tsewang Namgail of his first encounter with these mesmerising cats on a drizzly evening in 2000 at the Hemis National Park. Dr Namgail is the Director and Senior Scientist at the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), Ladakh.
In a recent study, Dr Namgail and his colleagues from SLC-IT, along with researchers from Panthera, New York, USA, have attempted to model the conditions for a suitable habitat for snow leopards in Ladakh. Known as the ‘snow leopard capital of the world’, Ladakh is thought to harbour 60% of the snow leopard population in India. In this first-of-its-kind study, they have used data from direct observations and camera traps. Their findings were published in the journal PLOS One.
The coyness of the snow leopards and their inaccessible habitat pose a challenge to conservationists who are trying to ascertain their numbers and distribution. “Searching for a snow leopard in the mountains is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is extremely difficult to spot one in the vast mountainous terrain,” says Dr Namgail. However, these predators do not shy away from troubling the farmers in the region, who are now uneasy with the idea of conserving them. “The snow leopards tend to kill livestock in pens at night, which makes farmers angry. Hence, it becomes challenging to gain people's support, without which it is almost impossible to conserve the species”, he explains.
In the current study, the researchers used a computer-based model to understand what habitat parameters suit these snow leopards better without leading to conflicts with humans. They gathered data on where the cats were seen by relying on direct observations and camera traps. They also recorded the elevation, ruggedness of the terrain, the distance to the nearest water source, the slope, distribution of the cat's favourite prey like the Asiatic ibex and blue sheep, and the land-cover at these locations.
The study found that elevation of the habitat was the most influential factor in determining its suitability for the snow leopards. The ideal habitat would be the one whose elevation ranges from 2800m to 4600m, with a ruggedness between 450m to 1800m, and has a water source in the range of about a kilometre. As open herbaceous vegetation makes it easier for the cats to find their prey, such land cover will be preferable for the cats, say the researchers.
Based on these metrics, the study found that only a third of the landscape in Ladakh was suitable for the leopards to thrive. The western part of the region was found to be ideal than the eastern part, which is at a higher elevation and the terrain is less rugged. The rest of the landscape was found to be less favourable for these cats.
With lakhs of tourists flocking these mountains each year, the region has seen many homestays mushrooming to cater to this demand. Can this development lead to more human-snow leopard encounters? The study found that a majority of these homestays are in areas that are found to be suitable for snow leopards, which the cats frequented to kill livestock. However, these areas also have many predator-proof corrals for protecting livestock.
“The reason for more suitable habitat having more homestays is that we select villages with high human-snow leopard conflict as homestay beneficiaries. So yes, there are frequent conflicts in these villages”, acknowledges Dr Namgail. However, building more predator-proof corrals and keeping a check on tourism in areas that are highly suitable habitats for snow leopards can alleviate these conflicts, suggests the study. The predator-proofing of corrals have already borne fruits as there has been a decline in the number of livestock killed by snow leopards in recent years, even though the cats still frequent the villages.
The researchers have also observed a phenomenal shift in people's attitude towards the snow leopards as they attract more tourists, and bring in more tourism revenues. “The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, more recently in collaboration with Panthera, has been able to change a threat to an opportunity by starting homestays and snow leopard tourism. Today the farmers consider the snow leopards worth more alive than dead,” remarks Dr Namgail, sharing the success story. This step, he hopes, could play a key role in involving local communities in conservation efforts. The findings of the study are also helping snow leopard tourists to know where they can spot snow leopards in Ladakh.
In 2018, the snow leopards made a historic leap in their status from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They are also protected under Schedule 1 of India's Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. “However, there is not much action on the ground when it comes to conservation of snow leopards and other wild animals in the mountains,'' rues Dr Namgail. Citing the example of the Project Snow Leopard, which was started by the Government of India with much fanfare, he says that “there has been a minimal effort in implementing it.'' In the absence of a continued scientific and community-based conservation efforts, it would be a matter of time before these majestic cats indeed turn into ‘ghosts’ and go extinct from the wild.
This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.