Less than three weeks after the conservation status of the snow leopard was downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’, WWF-India discovered, for the first time, photo evidence of the species in Arunachal Pradesh. The October 5 finding is, however, not a reason to assume that this most elusive of big cats is any safer than it was earlier. Part of the reason lies in the fact that research on the species, including estimates of its range, remains thin — and climate change poses a constant threat to its habitat.
Also, the September 14 downgrading to ‘vulnerable’ from ‘endangered’ — where the snow leopard had been since 1986 — on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, was not due any material reduction of threat to the species, but due to an earlier “incorrect assessment”.
Indeed, the population of the snow leopard continues to decline, and the threats to its existence continue to multiply. On October 2, a Rs 74.7 crore, six-year conservation programme for the Himalayan ecosystem was launched, which experts believe will be key to the survival of the cats in India.
The evidence of the animal was found in a camera trap set up at Thembang, one of the Community Conserved Areas in Arunachal Pradesh. Only a part of the state’s snow leopard habitat falls in the two protected areas of the Dibang Biosphere Reserve and Namdapha National Park. Large tracts are under the custodianship of the local communities, whose support is crucial for its protection.
“This perhaps is the first time that the presence of snow leopard has been reported through a camera trap photograph in Arunachal Pradesh,” Omkar Singh, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Principal Secretary, Arunachal Pradesh Department of Environment and Forests, said.
The snow leopard is rarely sighted, and even more rarely photographed. The first ever camera trap photos of the animal in Uzbekistan, now a confirmed habitat, came as recently as in 2014.
To be considered an “endangered” species, global populations have to be fewer than 2,500 mature adults, and the decline rate must be 20% over 16 years. As per the IUCN, in the previous assessment of the species in 2008, the “effective population size was incorrectly used as a surrogate for ‘mature individuals’” — this produced a “much lower figure”. New assessments by several organisations have found that the snow leopard doesn’t meet the two criteria. The IUCN has found that there are more than 2,500 mature adults in the world, while the estimated decline rate is at least 10% over 23 years.
Rishi Kumar Sharma, Technical Lead, Snow Leopard Conservation, WWF-International, told The Indian Express, “There must be no mistaking the severity of the situation for the snow leopard in the wild. Unlike other conservation success stories, this change from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ is due to a reassessment, and not yet attributed to an increase in population numbers. The IUCN Red List’s threatened categories are sadly reserved for species that at best, are facing a high risk of extinction. Snow leopards continue to face severe threats in many range countries and in some cases these are increasing.
“Conservationists agree that snow leopard population estimates across their range are guesstimates. The current estimates based on expert knowledge place the population at between 4,000-6,500 globally. However, this is debated,” Sharma added.
According to the IUCN, as per present research, the snow leopard’s range extends to 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan.
Ensuring that the species continues to survive in this estimated range, spanning over 2.8 million square kilometres, requires effective and coordinated response from these governments. Sharma added, “Governments need to respond appropriately based on the scale of the threats to snow leopards and their habitats. Effective conservation will secure the future of this iconic species in the Himalayas.”
In August, the first Global Snow Leopard Summit was held at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, under the aegis of the Global Snow Leopard Forum, a consortium of governments, NGOs and experts, who floated the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP) to secure at least 20 landscapes for the snow leopard by 2020.
The Indian government had launched Project Snow Leopard in January 2009 along the lines of Project Tiger.