Rishi Kumar Sharma was born in a small village in India and grew up listening to his grandmother’s fascinating stories about how a leopard would occasionally come down from a nearby hillock to drink from the village pond.
“I used to hide behind the huge ficus tree adjoining the pond, and kept a watch, hoping that one day the thirsty leopard would appear again to drink from the pond. But it never came.”
Confused, Rishi could not understand why, unlike the magical experiences narrated by his grandmother, his long-awaited chance encounter with the leopard was so elusive. Meanwhile his forays in the Shiwalik foothills to collect fuelwood, graze cattle or simply to collect wild fruits with friends further piqued his interest in nature.
“My gaze often shifted to the stunning vistas of the snowcapped Pir Panjal range and I wondered what lay in those snow clad mountains, visible yet far away. A friend who had a farm up in the mountains told me about the mythical creature called the “Him Tendua”, the leopard of the snows. I formed a notional image of a snow leopard in my mind and it never left me.”
But slowly his eagerness to see these cats turned into fear. Rishi wondered if these cats were so common and pervasive as presumed, why could not he not see one despite all his efforts. In places where people and big cats live side by side, like Rishi’s village, human-wildlife conflict is common. In retribution for livestock or human loss, communities often kill many of these big cats. Prized for their fur and bones and killed in retaliation for livestock predation, the population of big cats have been dwindling across their range.
Growing up well aware of this conflict, but still charmed by his grandmother’s stories about the leopard, Rishi developed an interest in studying big cats. In 2003, he enrolled himself in the Masters Course in Wildlife Science at the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India and began working on tiger conservation in 2006. This was the time when India was staring at its first big crisis in tiger conservation with tigers having gone extinct from a well-known national park. Rishi helped design field studies in the National Tiger Monitoring Program of the Government of India, trained researchers in field methods and took up assignments in challenging regions such as the mangrove forests in Sundarbans. While the tigers excited him to no end, the distant pull of the Himalayas kept growing stronger. At times, so strong was that pull, that he felt that the mountains were beckoning him.
“In 2010, while on sabbatical, I met a team of scientists studying the snow leopards. The informal discussions on conservation started turning more serious and I was asked if I would be interested in working on snow leopard conservation in the Himalayas. I immediately saw it as a chance to learn about the animal that had captivated my imagination as a child.”
As Rishi started working on the snow leopards, he soon learned that due to their vast home ranges, they were extremely rare, and incredibly hard to sight.
“In even the best snow leopard habitat, there might only be one snow leopard in every 100 square kilometers,” says Rishi.
Once Rishi started studying the big cat, his childhood desire to see one in the wild was no more important - he simply felt privileged to walk around the leopard's habitat in the Himalayas. But it does not mean he did not come close a few times.
Rishi spotted a snow leopard while installing camera traps in a large 4000 sq. km area in Spiti Valley in the Himalayas. “Once we were traversing a narrow gorge, surrounded by tall mountains on both sides. Suddenly, at one spot above us, rocks dislodged and started rolling down the slope. As we instinctively looked up, I only managed a passing glance of the tail of a snow leopard. So, the leopard had seen us before we could see it, which is often the case, and it was trying to quietly walk away.” said Rishi.
That first fleeting glimpse of the snow leopard was a joy for Rishi, because he appreciated how rarely it happened and how incredibly lucky he was. But other times, just sensing the animal was enough for him.
“I installed around 150 camera traps in the region, and I could guess when a snow leopard would be visiting one after a few months of experience. If I wanted to I could have spotted it too, but I never felt the need. I could simply feel the overwhelming presence of the snow leopards around the ridgelines and cliffs, the valley bottoms and rocky outcrops. Snow leopards are the very soul of the high mountains.”
As Rishi continues to chase the ghost of the mountain across the Himalayas, he often beams with pride in the knowledge that he is finally able to be in the mighty Himalayas. But more than that he knows his work is important. With less than 3 per cent of this big cat’s habitat in Asia’s high mountains has been exposed to scientifically rigorous approaches of population estimation, only little is known about the big cat.
“If I speak about India, less than 10 percent of the habitat has rigorous information on snow leopards that can be directly used in conservation planning. Even the basic information on the abundance of snow leopards and the mountain ungulates is scarce. ,” says Rishi.
This is the reason why Rishi’s work, along with that of other conservationists at WWF-India, is critical for the survival of the snow leopards. The studies he has conducted and expeditions he is leading provide crucial insights into the life of these shy and threatened animals. With the crucial information generated from these expeditions, conservationists have a better chance than ever before to protect them.Dr. Rishi Kumar Sharma, Lead, Snow Leopard Programme, WWF-India & WWF International
Rishi now leads the global snow leopard conservation program at WWF. “Our goal is to understand what we need to do to make sure people and snow leopards can live in harmony. As long as we can work with the local communities and ensure that snow leopard conservation and people’s livelihood are reconciled, I have no doubt that we can secure a future for these beautiful big cats.”