On International Leopard Day on Wednesday, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar launched a national-level protocol called the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) to estimate the population of snow leopards in the Indian ranges.
In India, the snow leopard, which is listed on the IUCN red list of threatened species, faces threat from illegal poaching and trade among other reasons.
Snow leopards are native to the alpine regions of Central Asia. It is because of their thick fur that they are able to survive harsh cold climates. Even so, during the winter months, they are likely to descend to lower elevations.
While the feline is a carnivore, no known human casualty has been recorded till now. Snow leopards mostly prey on blue sheep and mountain ibex and their smaller prey include hares, game birds and marmots. A snow leopard can kill prey that is up to three times its own weight.
In India, snow leopards mainly inhabit the higher Himalayan and trans-Himalayan landscape at an altitude between 3,000-5,400 metres. These ranges span a combined area of about 1,00,000 sq km across Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. This area contributes to about five per cent of the global snow leopard range.
According to the national protocol, India offers one of the best ranges for research purposes on snow leopards due to long-term research and conservation efforts. Yet India, like some other snow leopard ranges across the world, lacks a population estimate for the snow leopard, making it difficult for conservation efforts to be effective.
The launch took place during the fourth steering committee meeting of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program in New Delhi from October 23-34. The meeting was attended by ministers from countries with snow leopard ranges including Nepal and Kyrgyzstan, during which issues such as potential methods to protect snow leopards, protecting their habitat, innovation conservation policy and green economic development will be discussed.
“We will strive to double the snow leopards population in the world in the coming decade. This two-day conference is important because discussions, deliberations, cooperation and learning from each other and sharing the best practices will benefit us all. Therefore, we can conserve nature in a better way and we can do positive work collectively,” Javadekar said.
The main sources of threat for snow leopards in India are climate change, unregulated tourism, retribution killing, poaching, illegal trade, infrastructure development in the mountains, and excessive livestock grazing.
Under SPAI, a two-step process will be undertaken to estimate the snow leopard population. The first step involves an occupation-based assessment of snow leopard distribution, which will involve identifying the area where the study will be conducted. These estimates will be made by conducting preliminary surveys and using interview or sign-based methods. The second step involves population sampling for regional density estimation. To do this, a thorough review of already sampled areas will be carried out.
Online tools including a data sharing portal, training app for identifying individual leopards through photographs and threat mapping tool are being developed by GSELP in collaboration with partner organisations.
The Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) launched PWAS (Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards) in 2018 to bring together snow leopard range countries in an effort to accurately estimate their population size and monitor them. At present, the number of snow leopards around the world is not known and the existing estimates may not be accurate. PAWS’s goal is to have a “robust estimate” of the snow leopard population by 2022. SPAI is a part of India’s PAWS effort. In partnership with 11 other snow leopard range countries under GSLEP, India will take part in the jointly initiated efforts. The other snow-leopard range countries are Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
According to GSLEP, one of the reasons is that snow leopards live in remote, high altitude regions. The animal itself is elusive by nature and has a low natural population density. According to SPAI, because of the nature of the snow leopard, a complete population census of snow leopards is an “unfeasible goal”. Their distribution remains unclear. A recent survey cited in the SPAI document says that snow leopards do not occur in 25 per cent of the area that was thought to be their range in Himachal Pradesh. It also says that most of the population assessments till now have been conducted in the “best habitats”, where snow leopard density is higher, making an assessment in low-density areas even more critical.
According to GSELP the global population of snow leopards is estimated to be between 4,000-6,500, with the highest number of them in China, between 2,000-2,500. In India, the number could vary between 200-600, according to an evaluation carried out in 1994.
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