WWF-India’s survey narrows gap in snow leopard information

Posted on
08 June 2010
The iconic snow leopard is an elusive species of the Greater and Trans-Himalayas. Not much is known about it today, particularly in the Indian Himalayas as it has not been surveyed systematically in its range on Indian soil. Its presence is reported in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh (12 protected areas in each state), Uttarakhand (5), Sikkim (03) and Arunachal Pradesh (01). There are big gaps in information on the status, distribution and abundance of this elusive cat, except in parts of Laddakh region. WWF-India conducted field surveys in 2008 – 2009 to study it in these two states, with support from the respective state forest departments. For the first time DNA analysis has been done with snow leopard scat samples from Uttarakhand. The DNA analysis was conducted by Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. 

The survey:
Based on the information available and discussion with experts, probable habitats of the snow leopard were selected for the survey in parts of above two states. This was done to assess the occurrence and distribution, as well as study the conflict between humans and snow leopard, its co-predators and prey species. The occurrence of other mammals such as Himalayan brown bear, Asiatic black bear, common leopard, wolf, red fox, blue sheep, Asiatic ibex, goral, Himalayan tahr, musk deer and Himalayan marmot was also investigated through sightings and indirect evidence. Scats were collected wherever possible to confirm the existence of snow leopard in the surveyed areas.

Snow leopard-human conflicts were assessed through interaction with locals in Govind Pashu Vihar, Askot Wild Life Sanctuary and Dung (Munsiari) areas within UK. Data on livestock kills was collected. Threats to snow leopard and its habitat were investigated through discussions with officials, staff in field, locals and through primary observations.

The findings:
The study confirmed the presence of snow leopard in Uttarakhand on the basis of indirect evidence - scats. No evidence was found of this big cat in the surveyed areas of Himachal Pradesh, although it does not prove its absence there. Conflict survey revealed that livestock depredation is the only component of conflict and 36% of the total diet of snow leopard comprised of domestic animals like mule, goat and sheep while natural prey like blue sheep and rodents like marmots comprised 36.4% of the total diet.

Based on detailed analysis of scope (geographic extent), severity and irreversibility of threats, it is found that developmental activities pose medium level threat while grazing, tourism and human-snow leopard conflicts pose low to medium levels of threats.

Developmental activities such as construction of roads are a threat to snow leopard habitat at Nilang Valley, Askot Wildlife Sanctuary and Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. No grazing was observed in Gangotri National Park, Valley of Flower National Park and Great Himalayan National Park as it is not allowed by forest department. 

Findings of this survey will serve as a useful reference on the species in India and also as a base-line on the areas surveyed.

WWF-India proposes Gangotri National Park, Askot Wildlife Sanctuary and Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve be seen as potential habitats for snow leopard under ‘Project Snow Leopard’ being implemented by Ministry of Environment ancd Forests (MoEF), Government of India. There are other areas - the Valley of Flower National Park, Tundah Wildlife Sanctuary, Great Himalayan National Park and Lippa Asrang Wildlife Sanctuary which should also be the focus of well-planned snow leopard conservation.

It was observed that the remote areas of the region suffer from inadequate field staff, lack of check posts and lack of allowances/ incentives for field staff. There is also a dearth of management plans for most of the Protected Areas. WWF-India, therefore, recommends well developed management plans, infrastructure and capacity building for field staff of PAs in both the states. To minimise the threats from developmental activities and conflicts in the high altitude areas it is recommended that well planned development and livestock management is implemented with participation of locals.

WWF-India hopes that some of the findings from the snow leopard survey will be useful in the implementation of the recently launched Project Snow Leopard by the MoEF.

Challenging the unchallenged - Researcher’s account of the survey

Aishwarya Maheshwari, Senior Project Officer from WWF-India spent months in the Himalayas, trying to spot the elusive cat. He says, “Before the survey started I had quite a few people having apprehensions about my ambition.” And true to it, after climbing tall mountains, living through snow storms, he couldn’t see one through out the survey. But this did not disappoint him. “The signs were all over - scat, scrape (a mark with hind paw consisting of an oblong depression with a pile of earth at one end), pug-marks, kills, and spray/urine and claw – marking. During this survey, only twice did I see pugmarks and 10 times I came across scat of Snow Leopard,” he adds.

Aishwarya camping during the survey
©Aishwarya Maheshwari/WWF-India

The survey was not completed easily. Aishwarya experienced high altitude sickness once, when after staying out of the field for over two months he excitedly climbed 5000m in a span of three days without proper acclimatization. He recollects his survey around Tapoban inside Gangotri National Park. “I still remember the camping at Tapoban. There was a more or less continuous snow fall for two days and the snow had accumulated on my tent over night. I could not arrange a pressure cooker and hardly had any fuel left to cook vegetables. I had to survive for three days on nothing but noodles”.

When asked about his most memorable moment, he recollects the crossing of Gangotri Glacier, a two kilometer stretch. He adds “I can never forget my first sighting of Bharal at Gangotri NP, it was a group of 55 individuals”. Bharal is the main prey of Snow Leopard.


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