Snow Leopard Population Assessment Of India

  • On the occasion of International Snow Leopard Day (23rd October, 2019), Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) launched the First National Protocol on Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI).
  • The launch was made at the Inaugural session of the 4th steering committee meeting of the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) Program.

Objective

  • To help the Snow Leopard double its population.

About the Protocol

  • This protocol is evolved from the international efforts to develop a global protocol for the Population Assessment of World's Snow Leopards (PAWS) under the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) of the twelve countries.
  • It has been developed by scientific experts in association with the Snow Leopard States/UTs namely, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunanchal Pradesh and the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru.
  • The Indian survey will extensively use camera traps, artificial intelligence, drones and genetic tools to find out the numbers of not only the snow leopard, but also its prey base like ungulate prey base like markhor, argali, urial, ibex, blue sheep (bharal), Tibetan wild ass, wild yak, Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle and possibly Hangul or Kashmir red deer, musk deer, and Himalayan tahr.

Challenges to Assessment

  • Vast Habitat Area: Snow leopards occur over a vast, relatively remote and difficult to access mountainous area which will pose a major challenge to the estimation.
  • Unclear Distribution: Even their distribution remains unclear. For example, recent surveys show that they do not occur in 25 % of the area that was thought to be their range in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Variation in density across space also poses the risk of biased sampling.
  • Elusive Nature of Species: Snow leopard are known as the ghost of the mountains are due to their most elusive nature. This makes a complete population census of snow leopards an unfeasible goal.

Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP)

  • The GSLEP is a world first joint initiative that aims to conserve the endangered snow leopard within the broader context of also conserving valuable high mountain ecosystems.
  • In 2013, the 12 snow leopard range countries and partners signed the Bishkek Declaration and agreed to the goal of the GSLEP for the 7 years through 2020. These countries agreed to work together to identify and secure at least 20 snow leopard landscapes across the cat’s range by 2020 or, in short – “Secure 20 by 2020.”
  • It seeks to address high-mountain development issues using the conservation of endangered snow leopard.

Member Countries

  • India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards(PAWS)

  • At the International Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Conservation Forum 2017 in Bishkek, the GSLEP country governments formally endorsed a plan to develop a global snow leopard population assessment.

Aim

  • It aims to produce a robust estimate of the threatened cat’s population status within the next 5 years.

Significance

  • Will Provide First National Estimation: The protocol will help the snow leopard range states to estimate distribution and population of the big cats and prey in a uniform manner to arrive at a national estimate for the first time.
  • Guiding Document: This protocol will now serve as the main guiding document for the snow leopard range States in India and other agencies interested in snow leopard distribution and abundance estimation. This will provide crucial basis to design our management and conservation interventions and assess the effectiveness of the same in the long-term for better planning and management.
  • Site Identification: The program is expected to help identify sites in need of greater protection as well as how the species is responding to climate change.
  • Contribution to PAWS Initiative: will contribute to the global ‘Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopard’s (PAWS) initiative.

Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

Habitat

  • The snow leopard inhabits the higher Himalayan and trans-Himalayan landscape at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,400 metres.
  • In India, it is found in Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
  • India contributes to about 5% of the global snow leopard population.

Conservation Status

  • In 2017, IUCN changed the status of Snow leopard in its Red List from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’.
  • Listed in Schedule I of Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.
  • Listed in Appendix I of the CITES.

Ecological Significance

  • Snow leopards are apex predators, meaning they play a key role in maintaining the biodiversity in an ecosystem. Through population dynamics and trophic cascades, snow leopards are an important indicator of the health of the environment at high altitude. 
  • As the top predator in the high mountains of Inner Asia, the snow leopard plays an important ecological role in controlling the populations of the wild ungulate species it preys on, thus balancing the food chain system in the region.

Project Snow Leopard

  • Launched in 2009, it aims at safeguarding and conserving India's snow leopard and their habitats by ensuring their conservation and welfare through the participation of local population and through supportive actions of government.
  • Project is operational in Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

SECURE Himalaya Project

  • In 2017, Government of India and United Nations Development Program (UNDP), with support from the Global Environment Facility, started the “SECURE Himalayas - Securing livelihoods, conservation, sustainable use and restoration of high range Himalayan ecosystems”, to ensure conservation of locally and globally significant biodiversity, land and forest resources in the high Himalayan ecosystem, while enhancing the lives and livelihoods of local communities.

Key Components

  • Conservation of key biodiversity areas and their effective management to secure long-term ecosystem resilience, habitat connectivity and conservation of snow leopard and other endangered species and their habitats
  • Securing sustainable community livelihoods and natural resource management in high range Himalayan ecosystems
  • Enhancing enforcement, monitoring and cooperation to reduce wildlife crime and related threats

Threats to Snow Leopard

Habitat Fragmentation

  • The snow leopard habitat range continues to decline from human settlement and increased use of grazing space. This development increasingly fragments the historic range of the species.

Climate Change

  • Climate change, such as the increasing climate aridity observed in Central Asia, is another emerging threat to high-mountain ecosystems, with the potential to directly or indirectly reduce habitat for snow leopards and their prey.

Increasing Livestock and Overgrazing

  • Although human population density in the snow leopard’s ecosystems is relatively low, its habitats are heavily used by people whose livelihoods depend on traditional pastoralism and agro-pastoralism.
  • The resulting overgrazing leads to degradation of pastureland and wildlife habitats and serious soil erosion. This reduces wild prey numbers, which already live at relatively low densities due to the low productivity of the habitat, thereby impacting the snow leopard population.

Illegal Poaching

  • Illegal trade and illicit demand for snow leopard products exists at national and international levels, including in the West.
  • Snow leopards are killed and traded for their fur and other body parts, including teeth, claws, and bones.

Retaliatory Killings

  • Snow leopards are often killed by local farmers because they prey on livestock such as sheep, goats, horses, and yak calves. As their natural prey becomes harder to find, snow leopards are forced to kill livestock for survival, which leads to retaliatory killing of leopards.

Lack of Transboundary Cooperation

  • A lack of transboundary cooperation for snow leopard conservation threatens protection, law enforcement, and habitat connectivity as well as recovery efforts for the snow leopard and its prey.
  • It is estimated that up to a third of the snow leopard’s known or potential range is located either along or less than 50‐100 km from the international borders of the 12 range countries.

Suggestive Conservation Measures

  • Enhance the role of local communities in snow leopard conservation.
  • Take firm action to stop poaching and illegal trade of snow leopards by adopting comprehensive legislation, strengthening national law-enforcement systems, enhancing national, regional, and international collaboration
  • Encourage meaningful participation of industry and the private sector in snow leopard conservation.
  • Ensure that infrastructure projects and other development programs are fully sensitive to the conservation needs of snow leopards and their ecosystems.
  • Increase bilateral and regional cooperation for snow leopard conservation in transboundary landscapes.
  • Strengthen capacity for community-based conservation, law enforcement support, and wildlife and ecosystem management, among policy makers and civil society by supporting knowledge exchange and communities of practice and communication and cooperation among stakeholders.

Way Forward

  • Snow leopard symbolizes the rich natural and cultural heritage of the Indian high-altitudes. The unique high-altitude ecosystem inhabited by snow leopards offer invaluable livelihood, ecosystem and economic services to millions of local and national populace.
  • Snow leopard habitat forms the source of most of the life sustaining rivers of Asia, including Indus, Satluj, Brahmaputra, and Ganga.
  • Snow leopard itself is a major attractor of tourism in the Himalayas, thereby, contributing to the local economy. Although challenges are many, it is on us to grab the opportunities of working together and help this unique, fascinating species persist in the future.

Source : Civil Services Chronicle Online, October, 2019