January 2013: Presenting the first-ever evidence of the snow leopard Panthera unica in Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh, a recently-published paper has recommended further studies to help generate baseline information for conservation of this endangered species.
The snow leopard in Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary was sighted dragging its kill (a young ibex) by researchers – Neeraj Mahar and Sajid Idrisi – during a Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) survey in 2010 to help the Forest Department prepare an inventory of the area’s wildlife. It was recorded at an altitude of 3,376 m.
“While this opportunistic sighting by our team established snow leopard presence in Kugti, it raised a number of questions. Is Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary and nearby protected areas a snow leopard habitat? Or do they follow the prey to lower altitudes during winter, possibly from Lahaul or other nearby areas? This can only be verified with further focused studies,” said Dr. Rahul Kaul, Chief Ecologist, WTI, one of the authors of the paper.
Very little specific information exists on the distribution of snow leopards in India. Rough estimates put the population at 400-600 along the Himalayan region in India, and about 4080-6590 across the world (12 countries where it is found). Five Indian states, three in the western Himalayan region – Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, and two in the north-eastern region – Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, are known to host snow leopards in the country.
“Snow leopards inhabit the non-forested zone above the tree line – around 3,200 metres in the western Himalayas and around 4,200 metres in the eastern Himalayas, going over the Greater Himalayan crest into the Trans Himalayan region,” explained Dr. Yash Veer Bhatnagar of the Snow Leopard Trust and Nature Conservation Foundation, adding that the common leopards are ‘replaced’ by snow leopards in these areas.
The snow leopard is listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and is classified as ‘Endangered’ in the IUCN Red List. Yet, as other carnivores in India, it is threatened due to conflicts with people, retaliatory attacks, prey depletion due to competition with livestock and hunting, poaching, and unplanned development in their habitat.