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Counting Snow Leopards in the Time of Climate Change and Development

Counting Snow Leopards in the Time of Climate Change and Development

Snow leopards exist amid rugged cliffs and are found in unprotected areas. Photo: Stanzin Namgail.

On November 19, a yak herder named Phuntsog Tserinng, from Gya village in Ladakh’s Leh district, lost 16 of his 37 animals due to a suspected snow leopard attack. Saddened by the loss, the herder has applied for compensation with the Ladakh wildlife protection department.

But as Ladakh has become a union territory, the compensation scheme may be discontinued, according to wildlife guard of Hemis national park Khenrab Phuntsog, putting herders at risk. “If one compares with the prevailing market value, 30% to 40% of that is paid in cases of loss. However, this seems uncertain now,” Phuntsog told The Wire Science.

Livestock depredation is common in cold and arid Ladakh, where pastoralists keep yak, sheep and goats. According to the guard, some 121 sheep and goats have been killed by snow leopards in 2020. Sometimes, angry herders have killed the leopards in retaliation.

“Most attacks on corrals take place at night, when older animals come down and enter structures that are not mostly predator-proof,” Stanzin Namgail, an assistant professor at the University of Ladakh, said. “But now some corrals have a mesh to prevent the animals’ entry.”

Even though the snow leopard mostly inhabits the upper reaches of the Himalaya, a changing climate and intense livestock grazing by pastoralists are leading to human-leopard conflicts.

“Rapid change in climatic conditions poses a serious threat to snow leopards and local people residing in mountains,” Abhishek Ghoshal, a conservation ecologist with the UN Development Programme-India, said. “Vegetation communities – grasses, herbs, shrubs, dwarf shrubs and sedges – are impacted by climate change, which in turn affects wild herbivores, on which snow leopards depend for food.”

Changes in rainfall and snowfall patterns, temperatures, and water and pasture availability have all become part of the problem, he said.

“In the absence of snow, the soil lacks moisture and the vegetation is sparse. This impacts herbivores. The entire ecosystem is changing,” according to Phuntsog. “Last winter, there was less snowfall, and this summer, the rainfall was negligible.”

The SPAI initiative

According to Ghoshal, the snow leopard is one of the big cat species for which we still don’t have a reliable national population estimate. Enter the Snow leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) programme, floated by the Union environment ministry last year.

“SPAI involves intensive surveys in large tracts of snow leopard habitats,” Ghosal said. “Tools like camera traps placed to photo-capture snow leopards for population estimation might aid in monitoring illicit activities in survey areas.”

By monitoring key landscapes in snow-leopard habitats, SPAI can also help track the impact of climate change and help devise better ways for local communities to cope, Rishi Kumar Sharma, the lead of the Snow Leopards Programme at WWF International, said.

The environment ministry launched SPAI on October 23, 2019, to estimate the number of snow leopards in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

Himachal Pradesh completed field work for this survey in March this year, and reported the presence of 52 individuals.

Anil Thakur, the chief conservator of forests (wildlife) of Himachal Pradesh, said previous census attempts hadn’t been “scientific”. “The Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Mysuru worked with the wildlife wing of the forest department, completed the estimation and prepared the draft report in March this year.”

Yashveer Bhatnagar, a senior scientist at NCF, said, “Reliable distribution and abundance information is critical for apex predators. It is only in the past decade that many teams across the snow leopard’s global range have managed to develop and perfect techniques to estimate the species’ abundance.”

In cold arid Ladakh, pastoral communities have historically kept yak, sheep and goats for their livelihoods. Photo: Stanzin Namgail

According to him, counting snow leopards needs as much effort as we put into counting India’s tigers. “There is immense curiosity as to their population size.”

In Ladakh, snow leopards drive winter tourism, and the UT is counting them with the help of camera traps. “We carried out camera-trappings in 2003, 2006 and 2012, but they were limited to 300-400 sq. km range,” Phuntsog said.

“At present, we have introduced it on a large scale by setting up more than 750 camera-traps all over Ladakh. The animal exists wherever there are rugged cliffs. Unprotected areas also have a good snow leopard potential.”

Conservation efforts

The snow leopard is listed as being ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, and comes under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. Worldwide, more than 80% of snow-leopard habitats lie outside protected areas, and communities have shared space with the animal for several millennia.

Aside from being Ladakh’s flagship species, Namgail said, it’s also important that China, Mongolia, Pakistan and Tajikistan – which together with India account for 90% of annual snow leopard poaching – shield the animal from threats as well.

In one way to do this, researchers and governments have both made efforts to involve communities to help conserve and address livestock depredation and the conflicts that often follow. “The idea is to prevent and manage conflicts by corral enforcement and insurance programmes,” Ajay Bijoor who manages the NCF conservation programme in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, said.

In 2002, the NCF set up a livestock insurance programme in Kibber, Himachal Pradesh. It is run by members of local communities, who decide the amount of annual premium to be collected, in a joint account.

“In Kibber, the premium collected is in the range of Rs 1 lakh annually, whereas in other villages, it can be Rs 50,000 as well,” Bijoor said. “After the premium is raised, we pay a matching contribution for five years.” Such schemes are of great value to herders in Changthang valley in eastern Ladakh, where pashmina wool is still the principal source of income.

However, some pastoralists are also moving away from herding. In Spiti, locals are switching to cultivating apples, while others have turned to tourism.

Tashi Phuntsog, a herder from Sasoma in Ladakh, switched to tourism while his wife reared the herd. But after the region’s COVID-19 outbreak, he told NCF field manager Karma Sonam that tourism was no longer viable.

Also read: A Story of Wolves and Lambs, and a Holy Stupa Where a Trap Once Lay

Myths and folklore

As it happens, myths associated with snow leopards can also help with conservation.

Saloni Bhatia, a postdoctoral fellow at IIT Bombay, has studied the link between culture and conservation. “Folklore helps shape people’s attitudes towards certain animals,” she told The Wire Science.

“Myths can range from positive to negative symbolism. Some stories associated with the snow leopard have negative emotions whereas there are positive tales too which speak about their utility value. These can help in conservation to a great extent.”

One research article reported in 2013 that Buddhist monasteries could play a key role in protecting snow leopard habitats in the Tibetan plateau.

Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a freelance environment reporter.

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