Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

Snow Leopards Growing Naturally In Himachal Pradesh Despite Decline In National Population

The population of snow leopards has declined by over 20% in the past 25 years in India, but the population has significantly grown in Himachal Pradesh.

A snow leopard photographed in Spiti in Himachal Pradesh
A snow leopard photographed in Spiti in Himachal Pradesh Photo credit: HPFD-NCF-SLT

India on Saturday begins renewed efforts re-introduce cheetahs in India. Five females and three males have been brought from Namibia in Africa and have been released in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. 

The big cats were indigenous to India for thousands of years before hunting and loss of habitat reduced their numbers drastically by the dawn of the 20th century. Cheetahs were formally declared extinct in 1952.

In the backdrop of what gains are being intended by reintroducing cheetahs, Himachal Pradesh already has its heart-warming stories from the high-altitude cold deserts of Spiti where snow Leopards, also on the list of 21 critically endangered species, are on a steadily recovering in strength.

In the first-ever study on snow leopards in Lahaul-Spiti by the state’s wildlife department, with help from Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in 2021, the population of the snow leopards was found to have increased to 73.

Hardev Negi, who was Divisional Forest Officer at Kaza during the period, told Outlook, “If latest estimates are added, and even sightings of the animals by locals, the population has crossed 100-mark including cubs.”

The study, in a way, provides an excellent baseline for future monitoring, identifying areas of high density and prey abundance. At least 10 local youths from Kibber, a wildlife sanctuary and hotspot of the snow leopards, were part of the study are still active in conservation efforts, said Negi.

The population of snow leopards has declined by more than 20 per cent in the past 25 years in the country, but there is significant reversal in the trend in Himachal Pradesh, says the wildlife expert.

“It is basically because of the participatory efforts of tribals of Lahaul-Spiti and conservationists that snow leopards’ traditional habitat has also got expanded to Kinnaur and Pangi. Now, it is no longer confined to Spiti or Kibber,” says Rajeev Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), in Himachal Pradesh.

Though the first phase of the snow leopard survey has already ended and the second phase awaits approval, the department has stepped up intermediatory efforts to improve the habitat, reduce human-animal conflict, and enhance ecology so that snow leopards live in a healthy environment.

Currently, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of the Union government, and Global Environment Facility —a multilateral environment fund— are providing funds to carry forward the activities initiated under the Snow Leopard Project-I.

The conservation efforts underway cover a series of activities not only to secure the habitat and prevent degradation of the landscape but to also protect the livelihood of the locals. In fact, the focus has been to maintain an ecosystem where the human-animal conflict is avoided or reduced.

“Snow leopards act as an indicator of the health of the mountain ecosystem in which they live due to their position as the top predator in the food web,” says Archana Sharma, a former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife), who was also involved in the project.

The NCF study helped the wildlife department to identify factors affecting distribution of snow leopard and its primary prey. Another objective is related to pointing out the impact of migratory livestock grazing on vegetation and relative abundance of wild-prey.

Ajay Banyal, an Assistant Public Relations Officer at Kaza who himself has sighted the snow leopards, claims that the tribals of Spiti are an amazing population, who know best wildlife conservation practices. Mostly during the prolonged winters when the area gets cut off from rest of the world for six months, spotting snow leopards becomes a very normal thing.

Banyal recalls that last year, during the Covid-19 lockdown, a snow leopard killed 73 sheep in the Geu area as the animal started coming to human habitats and attacked domestic animals. Later a trap was laid to catch the leopard and it initially brought to Shimla for study, only to be released in the same habitat later. No attacks have been reported since.

In another incident, two youths —Nawang of Kaumik village and Sushil Yangthangi of Lahaul— were returning to Kaza from Kaumik when they spotted two snow leopards near Hikkim village in February 2020. The big cats did not shy away and instead, one of these approached the vehicle to have a close encounter with the human world. A video of the same later went viral on social media.

"The snow leopards will keep growing in Himachal Pradesh's high-altitude snowline till its habitat remains secure and is not interfered by humans or modern development projects such as those of dams," says Tsering Bodh Sakya, an environmentalist at Spiti.