INDIA HAS launched its first ever census of the rare and elusive snow leopard population that mainly inhabits the higher reaches of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand but is also found in Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the first step, the “scientific estimate” is being carried out by the Uttarakhand Forest department and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and will focus on sightings by residents of hilly areas, who migrate to the plains during the winter, and paramilitary personnel.
“The census exercise was to have started earlier this year but got delayed due to Covid. The first phase started this month, and involves more than 150 Forest staff members. They are equipped with GPS and binoculars, and questionnaires for local residents and paramilitary personnel about the sites where they usually spot snow leopards and their prey. This phase will be completed by December 22,” said R K Mishra, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Uttarakhand, and the state’s nodal officer for the census.
According to WII’s senior scientist Dr S Sathyakumar, the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) is the national protocol for this exercise. “For the first time, we will get a scientific estimate of the snow leopard population in India, threats that exist in its habitat and the status of habitats,” he said. Officials hope to have a final count and a detailed study report ready for release by December 2021.
According to a habitat-based estimate three years ago, there are 626 snow leopards scattered across a 1.2-lakh sq km area at heights of between 3,000 to 5,000 metres. As per that estimate, Ladakh has 130 snow leopards followed by Himachal Pradesh with 90 and Uttarakhand 86.
Officials said that Forest staff involved in the exercise have been provided with a 16-page questionnaire that includes queries on sightings of scat, scrape and pug marks. Respondents will be asked to identify snow leopards from photos of animals found at those heights, including co-predators like Himalayan brown bear, Asiatic black bear, common leopard, tiger and red fox.
To assess threat perceptions, the respondents will also be asked questions such as this: “Do you think snow leopards should exist or you wish they did not?” The questionnaire will record geographical coordinates of sites identified by respondents.
On the basis of the findings of this survey, which will be repeated in April, WII will mark sites for installation of cameras from May.
“Scat samples will be collected for genetic analysis,” said WII’s Sathyakumar.
“Once sites with the presence of snow leopards are identified, tourists will also visit, which will improve the lives of locals. They will also get motivated for the conservation of snow leopards and their habitats,” Mishra said.
Besides, officials said, three identified snow leopard landscapes — in Ladakh, Gangotri-Nanda Devi, Sikkim-Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh) — will be covered by a management plan.
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