The mighty Himalayas is home to many species. Besides providing ecological and economic services, the largest mountain range in the world has numerous unique ecosystems hidden within, which have rich biodiversity. The Himalayan high altitude areas located above the forests—the alpine meadows and the cold deserts beyond—houses an apex predator called the snow leopard. A large cat native to mountain ranges of Central and Southern Asia.
They truly are magnificent creatures. One of the main predators of the Himalayan ranges, the snow leopard, is very shy and sightings in their natural habitat are very rare. Very, very rare. In fact, conservationists and wildlife experts who study the snow leopards celebrate when they find scat samples (excreta). Snow leopards in India have been identified as a flagship species for the high altitude Himalayas. They are found at an elevation of 3200-4500 m, with a home range of 12 to 39 square kilometers. The snow leopard is a globally endangered species, and nationally critically endangered. Unfortunately, we know very little about them. The constant loss of its habitat, dwindling prey populations and human-wildlife conflict are some of the reasons which have pushed this species to the verge of extinction.
Snow leopard’s habitat and prey species
Existing in Central and Southern Asian mountain ranges, the species is found across 12 countries, viz., Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In India, the snow leopard’s habitat is spread over five Himalayan states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. And within most of these states, over a quarter of their area lies within the snow leopard’s range.
Not more than 7,500 individuals are estimated to be surviving over two million square kilometers in the Himalaya and Central Asian mountains. India is home to 10% of the global population in less than 5% of its global range.
Snow leopard is known to feed on many species, including livestock (mule, goats, sheeps), rodents and wild prey. Blue sheep and Asiatic ibex are the most preferred prey species by snow leopards, as indicated by various studies. The abundance of snow leopard in India relies predominantly on Blue sheep (commonly known as Bharal) and Asiatic ibex.
Threats to India’s snow leopard populations
The snow leopard’s habitat in India faces extensive livestock grazing. Livestock grazing is problematic as it’s not only the resident livestock that is grazing but also the non-resident, migratory livestock. For example, grazers of Uttarakhand take their livestock to adjoining grazing areas of Himachal Pradesh, increasing pressure on the ecosystem of that area. Decline in wild-prey populations due to rangeland degradation by livestock grazing is a serious conservation concern. Livestock grazing affects rangeland quality by lowering availability of palatable forage and reduces density and population of the prey species.
Reduction in prey species number forces the predator to hunt the livestock and stroll in lower altitudes in search of food, which at times results in human wildlife conflict.
Along with extensive grazing, developmental activities, illegal wildlife trading and hunting are other anthropogenic pressures on this species.
Conservation efforts for the snow leopard
Despite the ecological importance, the harsh conditions, and the increasing threats, the wildlife of the Himalayan high altitudes has received little conservation attention. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF&CC), Government of India, had initiated work on a flagship Snow Leopard Scheme in 1988, but it could not be launched.
In 2004, the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) began a consultative process in all the five Himalayan states (Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh) to assess the need and scope for initiating Project Snow Leopard. After many state level workshops, in July 2006, in Leh, a meeting with many prestigious institutions and forest department was held and the need for conservation of the species led to formation of a committee called Project Snow Leopard committee, instituted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change, Government of India, and Project Snow Leopard began.
Project Snow Leopard is an Indian initiative for strengthening wildlife conservation in the Himalayan high altitudes. It aims to promote a knowledge-based and adaptive conservation framework that fully involves the local communities, who share the snow leopard’s range, in conservation efforts.
The aim is to safeguard and conserve India’s unique natural heritage of high altitude wildlife populations and their habitats by promoting conservation through participatory policies and actions.
Also, work for snow leopard’s conservation is being carried out by various institutions like Wildlife Institute of India (WII), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and Nature Conservation Foundation. Currently, a GoI-UNDP-Global Environment Facility project called SECURE Himalaya (Securing livelihoods, conservation, sustainable use and restoration of high range Himalayan ecosystems) is underway, and it aims to conserve the Himalayan landscape with major focus of Snow leopard and its habitat.
An ecosystem-wide approach is essential to protect and revive the snow leopards of the country; a majestic species that deserves to roam in its homeland like the King it is. Hopefully, the government and bilateral organization efforts will be the boost this species requires.
Ghoshal, A. (2017). Determinants of occurrence of Snow leopard and its prey species in the Indian greater and trans Himalaya (Doctoral dissertation, Saurashtra University Rajkot).
Maheshwari, A., Sharma, D., & Sathyakumar, S. (2013). Snow leopard (Panthera uncia) surveys in the Western Himalayas, India. Journal of Ecology and The Natural Environment, 5(10), 303-309
Project Snow Leopard Report, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change.