A bushy tailed, grey-eyed cat sauntered down the snow-laden roads of Spiti in February 2020. The snow leopard, called Shen – ‘ghost of the mountain’ – by the locals, lurked near the car as the people inside jubilantly filmed it. The video spread like wildfire on the internet soon after and won the hearts of several people around the world.
Snow leopards have a reputation for being elusive, and tracking one down can be an arduous, if rewarding, task. But incidents like the one in February are becoming increasingly common as snow leopards venture out of their territories in search of food.
Tallying their number in the Himalayas is like searching for the needle in the proverbial haystack. Together with the rugged mountain terrain and their reclusive nature, census estimates indicate there are 3,000-7,000 individuals in the world, of which 400-700 reside in India. They occupy the trans-Himalayan regions of Hemis-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, Gangotri-Nanda Devi in Uttarakhand, and Kanchendzonga-Tawang in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
These shy animals are clearly troubled these days. The effects of climate change have ‘exposed’ them to the people more than any other events in history. Poaching for Chinese traditional medicine, fewer prey, habitat destruction and retaliatory killing (due to predation of farmers’ livestock) have further reduced their numbers in the last two decades, stacking the odds against their favour. Researchers emphasise the need to tackle these threats to reduce the burden on the species due to climate change.
The movement to salvage the snow leopard really came alive in 2012 when the president of Kyrgyzstan spearheaded efforts using the Global Tiger Initiative as a model. Soon after, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (or GSLEP) was formed. It invited the participation of the 12 snow-leopard-range countries: India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The snow leopard plays a crucial role in the ecology of mountain ecosystems. It is an apex predator of the frozen desert. When it hunts, it helps bring balance to the population of prey species like wild goats (bharal), foxes, wolves and yak. But imbalances in the ecology of their habitat have already begun to show. The number of resorts in Ladakh has ballooned, affecting vegetation and the distribution of wild goats. Similar changes plague the Spiti Valley, driven by a booming feral dog population.
Climate change only exacerbates these effects, pushing snow leopards closer to local extinction.
Climate change is coming
With climatic dominos falling down in different parts of the world, as fires in the Amazon, floods in Indonesia, bushfires in Australia, storms and heatwaves in Europe, etc., the climate crisis has jolted conservationists and policymakers alike everywhere.
The cascading effects of rising temperature in the mountains begin with the loss of ice. This affects the volume of water available in different seasons, which then affects predator-prey relations. Scientists have also predicted the shifting treeline could encourage the growth of plants that don’t appeal to the snow leopards’ prey, further fragmenting an already imperilled habitat.
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Climate cycles have been influencing ecology for millennia. What’s new today is the rate of change, whose avalanche effects are blowing a hole in the ecological sanctity of the snow leopard habitats of India. And when snow leopards are affected, humans are, too.
Humans and snow leopards have peacefully coexisted in India, more so than in our neighbouring countries. This is largely thanks to the religious philosophies of the Buddhists living in the trans-Himalayan region. But this said, studies have shown that even these pacific, symbiotic worldviews don’t stop people from killing snow leopards in retaliation, especially in droughts years.
To add to this already complicated picture, climate change has certain hidden or indirect impacts that may not be as conspicuous as physical changes. (Editor’s note: The author of the study linked here is also the author of this article.) For example, consider the graze-free schemes designed to restrict certain patches of land only for the use of the snow leopard’s wild prey, the bharal. As the treeline moves, the size of the land available to graze on shrinks, so this scheme is good to maintain a wild prey population. However, herders also grapple with less grazing land for their livestock, so they become less likely to abide by the scheme.
According to some ecologists’ projections, only 35% of snow leopards’ habitat is protected from the effects of climate change. (This does not include the Himalayas.)
Then there is the advent of tourism in high-altitude regions, against whose effects the snow leopards’ have even less protection. The demand for homestays and hostels has skyrocketed in recent years. And locals are tempted by a quick way to make more money, by converting cropland into homestays.
In Ladakh and Spiti, where snow leopards share their habitats with humans, unplanned development, including of homestays, also means unplanned levels and locations of garbage. This in turn has attracted and sustained more feral dogs. Many of these dogs also directly compete with the snow leopard for the bharal. A forest official in Spiti evidently recorded a pack of dogs chasing away a snow leopard from its kill. Such incidents further threaten the majestic animal’s habitat, especially since feral dogs are also territorial.
Diminishing habitats and sustained ecological and developmental stresses in the region gravely threaten the snow leopard. But there is still hope. The snow leopard as a species has survived over two million years of changes in geological and climate cycles, and some researchers hope that it will pull through the current crisis as well.
However, for the humans of the Himalaya, the snow leopard’s struggle threatens the regions’ ecological balance. It’s important that we stabilise the vulnerable communities by introducing alternative options for livelihoods. Our role as citizens is to be mindful of our ecological impact, especially in vulnerable regions like the Himalaya. Changing our lifestyles to depend less on fossil fuels, reducing our consumption and conserving water are the opportunities we have to create positive snowball effects.
Aradhana Singh is a zoologist working in wildlife conservation. An avid diver and climber, she enjoys exploring the wilderness at all altitudes.