The snow leopard is one of the most enigmatic and least understood of the big cats. It is a symbol of the rugged yet fragile trans-Himalayan landscapes of India. Protecting this apex predator helps conserve the entire landscape and its ecology.
Habitat is also the ‘water tank’ of East and South Asia
Melting of massive glaciers in the cold dry wind swept Tibetan plateau and the high snowclad Himalayan mountains of Central and South Asia, form the headwaters of three of the largest river systems of South Asia – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. China’s lifelines, the mighty Yangzte and Huang Ho rivers also originate in the Tibetan plateau. In other words, this region is rightly called the ‘Water Tank’ of millions of people in Asia. Local people depend on these ecosystems for food, water, mineral resources, medicinal and aromatic plants, livestock, cultural traditions and spiritual values. This vast region is also home to one of the most mysterious and elusive predator– the Snow Leopard. The range of this enigmatic cat includes landscapes in 12 countries including the Himalayan mountain states of India (Fig.1). The global population of snow leopards remains unknown, but estimates put the number at just 4,000 to 7000 individuals; their exact number is relatively unknown given they are extremely elusive and challenging to survey. The species is very rarely seen even by local people. However, new research, including camera trapping, is beginning to indicate there may be more snow leopards than previously thought.
Securing Snow Leopards
and least understood of the big cats. It is a symbol of the
rugged yet fragile trans-Himalayan landscapes of India.
Snow Leopard Distribution in India
The total habitat of the snow leopard in India is around 75,000 km2. The Western and Eastern Himalaya (including Nepal) form an important link between the Central Asian and East Asian populations of snow leopards and serve as a vital corridor for the genetic interchange between these populations. While India is implementing a robust Snow Leopard Population Assessment across the high-altitude Himalaya, the current population assessment is close to 300-700 individuals. Snow leopards are closely associated with the alpine and sub-alpine zones above the tree line. They are distributed across the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh and states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the Western Himalayas and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas.
Competition and conflict with domestic livestock
The snow leopard’s habitat exemplifies a complete and diverse ecosystem that is coinhabited by both the humans and wildlife of that region. Snow leopards also share their habitats with migratory and resident pastoralists. However, with the decreasing prey base and the increased invasion of humans into the wild, the mountain ghost’s habitat has been under immense threat. Depredation by free-ranging dogs, coupled with illegal hunting and wildlife trade are another set of severe threats that plague the sensitive habitat of the snow leopard. All this coupled with pervasive grazing by migratory livestock such as yak and sheep throughout the high-Himalayan region in turn leaving lesser grazing spaces for ibex and blue sheep that ultimately die of hunger further affect snow leopard conservation strategies. It is these threats that underscore the importance of community-based landscape conservation approaches to protect the fine balance of the snow leopard’s habitat and all the numerous species that rely on it.
What would happen, if you remove all Snow Leopards?
The Snow Leopard is an Apex Predator, that is, a predator who stands at the top of a food chain with no natural predators. Its position at the top of the food chain makes the elusive big cat extremely significant. Any form of attempt of destabilising the position of the Snow Leopard from its position through illegal poaching, trade or climatic disturbances could trigger a massive ecological impact. Over a period of time this series of ecological imbalances compounds to a virtual unravelling of the delicately balanced ecosystem structure- a snowballing effect called a ‘trophic cascade’, consequences of which are nothing less than catastrophic.
As the snow leopard habitat is shared amongst wildlife and the mountainous communities that inhabit it, their agro-pastoralist lifestyle is closely related to the richness and quality of the high-Himalayan region. The vitality of this biologically and water rich high-altitude landscape doesn’t end just there but extends further downstream to the millions that reside in the plains of South Asia. The immense value of ecosystem services generated by snow leopard habitat makes it an area of grave importance, one that needs sound management and policy addressal.