India: Ambitious Plan to Estimate Snow Leopard Population

Our team in India is embarking on an ambitious project along with the Forest Department of Himachal Pradesh: Estimating the total snow leopard population of this mountainous Indian state.

Snow leopards like to leave scent marks on overhanging rocks. Knowing this, researchers often pick such spots to set up their camera traps. Photo by NCF India / HPFD / Snow Leopard Trust

Over the next 3 years, using camera trap surveys, the state’s Forest Department and our team at NCF India are planning to arrive at a solid estimate of the snow leopard population in Himachal Pradesh, one of five Indian states that have snow leopards. The estimation will be done in a 20,000 km2 area, spread across six districts of Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur, Shimla, Kullu, Kangra and Chamba, and will include both snow leopards and their main prey species.

A map of Himachal Pradesh’s snow leopard habitat. Image by NCF India

“The implementation of the project will make Himachal the first state to get a population estimation survey done on such a large scale,” revealed Dr. Ramesh C. Kang, Principal Chief Conservator Forest (PCCF) and Chief Wildlife Warden of Himachal Pradesh in an interview with the Tribune, an Indian newspaper.

Camera traps are one of the most reliable ways of studying snow leopard presence and abundance. Photo: NCF India / Himachal Pradesh Forest Department / Snow Leopard Trust

In Upper Spiti, one of Himachal Pradesh’s best snow leopard habitats, our team has partnered with the Forest Department to monitor the population of these cats and their prey for nearly a decade. Some of the other areas have been surveyed sporadically, or not at all. “We will sample different habitat types; some very good and others less ideal. As long as our sampling represents all available habitat types across the state, we can arrive at a representative, reliable estimate of the whole state’s population”, explains Dr. Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, the Snow Leopard Trust’s India Program Director and leader of NCF’s High Altitude team.

Through his binoculars, Dr. Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi scans the slopes of Upper Spiti Valley for snow leopards and their prey. Photo by NCF India

The effort in Himachal Pradesh aligns with a larger project called PAWS (Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards), which aims at coming up with a reliable estimate of the worldwide population of these cats. PAWS is coordinated by the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), an alliance of 12 snow leopard range countries supported by various international organizations, researchers and conservationists working for snow leopard conservation.

“PAWS brings together leading researchers from all over the world, representing all major conservation groups, government actors and scientific institutions who are interested in saving the snow leopard. Together, they’re defining unified methods and standards for data collection and analysis, so that everyone who is working on these questions in different parts of the world can follow the same steps, and produce comparable, reliable results. We are fully aligning our efforts in Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere with PAWS”, Dr. Suryawanshi says.

A More Solid Basis for Conservation Decisions

“The threats, emerging from factors like climatic changes, intense local and migratory livestock grazing and retribution killing and hunting, have necessitated the need for conserving species like snow leopard so that there is an increase in their population,” said Dr. Kang to the Tribune.

A snow leopard mother and cub in the mountains around Spiti Valley, India. Photo by NCF India / Himachal Pradesh Forest Department / Snow Leopard Trust

Despite these threats intensifying across the snow leopard’s range, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) decided in 2017 to downgrade the snow leopard from Endangered to Vulnerable on its Red List of Threatened Species – implying that there are more of these cats than previously thought, and that threats faced by them have gone down.

The Red List status change has caused considerable disagreements in conservation circles, and continues to be debated. However, according to Dr. Koustubh Sharma, the International Coordinator at the GSLEP program, there is widespread consensus on one fact: “Everyone agrees that our current knowledge on the world’s snow leopard population and status isn’t robust enough, and that we need to work on a better estimate in order to make sensible conservation decisions. This is what PAWS is about.”

While PAWS – and the population estimate in Himachal Pradesh that will feed into it – are very important for the future of the snow leopard, Dr. Suryanwanshi emphasizes that science won’t save this cat.

Helping communities coexist with snow leopards is the key to the cat’s future. For instance, predator-proof corrals can help keep both livestock and snow leopards safe. Photo by NCF India

“We need to address the various urgent and intensifying threats these cats face with conservation investments on the ground”, Dr. Suryawanshi says. “Our focus here is on working with local communities in the snow leopard habitat to help them coexist with the cat in a sustainable way. This includes measures to prevent or offset livestock killings, but also setting aside grazing land for wild snow leopard prey species to ensure that they find enough food. The planned population assessment will ultimately support these efforts as well, because it will help us understand how effective these measures are, and to make sure they’re focusing on the priority areas in the state.

2 Comments

  1. Map is show all snow leopard habitat area,,,I miss here kugti wild life sanctuary of Bharmour,,where also snow leopard are present

  2. This is encouraging, wonderful news. As an American scientific author and naturalist I offer my support of a study that will benefit snow leopard conservation AND will enable human residents to share the region by protecting their livelihood. The hard, great work begun by George Schaller, his team and others are continuing to produce solid results in wildlife conservation.

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