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Snow leopard count: A relevant study

Snow leopard count: A relevant study
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By: Kanchan Basu

There are 718 Snow Leopards in India – in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) has estimated. The study, carried out between 2019 and 2023, is a major leap in the understanding of the species.

The highest number of Snow Leopard was estimated to be in Ladakh (477), followed by Uttarakhand (124), Himachal Pradesh (51), Arunachal Pradesh (36), Sikkim (21), and Jammu and Kashmir (9). The current estimate puts the number of Indian Snow Leopards between 10% and 15% of the global population.

The exercise involved setting up cameras, or camera traps, in 1,971 locations and surveying 13,450 km of trails which teams surveyed for recording signs of Snow Leopards such as scat, hair and other body markers. Much like the approach used in surveys to estimate Tiger numbers, the States conducted the surveys and the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous body of the Union Environment Ministry, used software and statistical methods to estimate the number of individual cats that are present but not caught on camera and combined them with those caught on camera.

Union environment minister, Bhupender Yadav released the report, Status of Snow Leopards in India during the National Board for Wildlife meeting held in Delhi on 6 February, 2024.

The species is found in 12 countries, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and India, and its global population is estimated at 3020 to 5390, according to the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program.

The snow leopard is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and faces threats from climate change impacts, overgrazing, habitat degradation, free-ranging dogs, human-wildlife conflicts, and poaching.

Snow Leopards are believed to occupy around 1 lakh sq km of the higher Himalayan terrains in India. As recently as 2016, the cat’s status was unknown in as much as one-third of its range. This went well with the legend of the “ghost of the mountains” built around the elusive cat’s mastery of stealth and camouflage.

But for this ’ghost’ to have a future – and since the future of most species is increasingly determined by human actions – knowledge of the cat’s status across its range is necessary for framing the right policies. This is also a question of securing the future of Indians, because the Snow Leopard’s habitat is where all major Himalayan rivers, which sustain life across much of the country, spring of life.

Yet, a national effort to count Snow Leopards across its range remained daunting.

The challenges

The first and foremost challenge is the unforgiving terrain Snow Leopards occupy. While the cold deserts of Ladakh and Spiti are their strongholds, Snow Leopards range all along the higher Himalayas, above the tree line between altitudes of 10,500 feet and 17,000 feet. Much of this habitat is not accessible by motorable roads, and its rarified air makes even routine fieldwork, such as locating suitable sites for placing camera traps, a test of endurance.

Analysing photos camera-trapped in the field poses the next challenge. Specialised software can identify unique individuals by comparing stripes or rosettes on both flanks from a pool of photographs. But unlike Tigers, Zebras, or even Leopards, Snow Leopards do not yield to artificial intelligence.

For long researchers have grappled with the issue of misidentifying individual Snow Leopards “as their spot patterns may not be easily recognised when their thick fur gets ruffled or when their body is photographed at different angles.” To overcome this challenge, a global consensus of researchers recommended manual evaluation, using at least three marking patterns to differentiate between individuals, and employing multiple independent analysts for identification.

The head and tail of a Snow Leopard provide the best reference points for identification. Some researchers have tried to position cameras strategically to capture the forehead region of Snow Leopards, as was done in Ladakh during the present SPAI exercise.

But this requires placing multiple camera traps at each location – and can stretch resources.

The exercise

The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) partnered with NGOs Nature Conservation Foundation and WWF-India to prepare India’s Snow Leopard estimation protocol in 2019.

The groundwork was carried out in the next three years. In all, photographs collected from 1,971 camera trap locations led to the identification of 241 unique individuals, which was extrapolated to an estimated population of 718 Snow Leopards in India. This extrapolation is done as cameras cover a limited area, and do not capture all Leopards across their habitat.

In Ladakh, camera traps were placed at 950 locations covering 8,604 sq km for 120 to 180 days. Based on their distinctive forehead pat times, 126 unique adult individuals were identified from 10,789 images. The population was estimated to be 477 across 47,572 sq km.

In Jammu and Kashmir, only 9 unique individuals were identified by deploying 278 camera traps at 135 locations. Even after dropping four individuals due to poor image quality and unfavourable capture angles, data set fell short of providing a comprehensive estimate for the Snow Leopard population across 949 sq km. noted SPAI.

In Himachal Pradesh, 44 unique individuals were identified from 187 photos captures across 284 camera trap locations, leading to an estimated population of 51 over 25,000 sq km. From 41 unique individuals identified from 390 Snow Leopard photos, Uttarakhand estimates a population of 124 occupying 12,768 sq km.

Arunachal Pradesh estimated a population of 36 across 14,156 sq km. from 8 unique Snow Leopards identified from 115 camera trap locations. In Sikkim, 14 unique individuals were identified from 64 Snow Leopards photos captured from 99 camera trap locations. The estimated population was 21 Snow Leopards across 400 sq km.

The outlook

In the 1980s, a guesstimate of a global population of 4,000 – 7,500 Snow Leopards cited 400 – 700 individuals in India. In the 1990s, another guesstimate put 200 – 600 Snow Leopards in India out of a global count of 3,020 – 5,390. In 2016, India’s leading Snow Leopard researchers came together to put the national estimate at 516.

The present count of 718 is consistent with the trend, and suggests overall population stability. Yet, this is just the beginning of understanding the elusive species, its dispersal, competitive land use patterns, and mortality trends.

Infrastructure development is causing rapid influx of labourer camps in the higher Himalayas who often depend on scarce natural resources for fuel and food. Such migrations, along with a boom in tourism, have also led to garbage mismanagement which in turn, is fuelling an explosion in the free ranging dog population that competes with Snow Leopards.

                                           Numbers in the wild

AREA                                                CAMERA TRAP LOCATIONS                                          ESTIMATED NUMBERS

LADAKH                                                                           956                                                               477

UTTARAKHAND                                                              382                                                               124

HIMACHAL PRADESH                                                    284                                                                  51

ARUNACHAL PRADESH                                                 115                                                                  36

SIKKIM                                                                               99                                                                   21

JAMMU & KASHMIR                                                       135                                                                   9

TOTAL                                                                               1,971                                                             718

(The author is a columnist and member of India Journalists’ Association. He hails from Kolkata)

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