Cameras keep eye on snow leopards in Spiti Valley, India

2010-12-29 11:10:00

Shimla, Dec 29 (IANS) The third eye is monitoring the movement of the highly endangered, elusive snow leopard in the cold deserts of Himachal Pradesh. And one of the camera traps has thrown up useful footage – of a pack of dogs attacking and injuring a snow leopard.

With just about 750 snow leopards left in India, the Himachal Pradesh government is using cameras to monitor their movement in Spiti Valley, the state’s northernmost part, running parallel to the Tibetan border.

The state’s wildlife department, in coordination with Mysore-based non-governmental organisation Nature Conservation Foundation, has installed 20 camera traps (automatic cameras) in Spiti Valley.

One of the cameras captured shots of a pack of dogs attacking a snow leopard. The dogs were abandoned by the pastoral communities that migrate from alpine pastures in summer along with their livestock, chief wildlife warden A.K. Gulati told IANS.

‘From this video clip, we came to know that abandoned dogs are also a potential threat to the wild cat. However, in this case, the snow leopard managed to escape with minor injuries on its hind legs,’ Gulati said.

According to wildlife experts, the rise in the population of abandoned dogs might pose a threat to the snow leopards’ food chain.

‘The dogs usually attack in a pack and it’s easy for them to hunt even big mammals like the Himalayan blue sheep. This might reduce the prey base of the wild cat,’ an expert said.

The snow leopard, a graceful golden-eyed animal with thick fur, padded paws and a long tail, is found in rocky regions at an altitude from 2,700 to 6,000 metres (8,900 ft to 20,000 ft). Himachal has adopted it as its state animal.

Not only is the animal extremely elusive but its cold, inhospitable habitat means very little is known about it. Hence the need for technology.

‘Initially, 20 cameras have been installed in a 100 sq km area of Spiti to monitor the movement and behaviour of the snow leopards,’ Gulati told IANS.

Each camera costs around Rs.250,000 and is equipped with a sensor that shoots any movement of any animal in its vicinity. Each camera has a battery backup of 25 days.

‘Placing a camera is really a herculean task. One has to trudge miles of rugged, cold and inhospitable Himalayan terrain. We have to restrict even the movement of the humans as it might develop fear psychosis in the animal or spoil their habitat,’ he said.

The footages also captured some other animals like the Himalayan blue sheep and Asiatic ibex – a wild goat species. Both are important prey for the snow leopard.

He said footage indicated the presence of around 10 snow leopards, but nothing conclusive could be said in the study’s early stages.

‘Right now, we are not in a position to comment on the exact population of the wild cats in Spiti. But we can only say the area supports an impressive population,’ he said.

Apart from Spiti Valley, the wildlife wing also plans to install 20 camera traps in the Pin Valley National Park, the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, the Great Himalayan National Park and the Pangi and Bharmour areas of Chamba district, which has a sizeable population of the snow leopard.

Gulati said under the Project Snow Leopard, the state had sent a proposal to the central government to set up a snow leopard research institute in Spiti at a cost of Rs.5.5 crore. He said a major portion of the amount would be spent on improving the habitat of the animal.

The Himachal project is part of the central government’s Project Snow Leopard that was launched Jan 20, 2009, as part of efforts to conserve the globally endangered species.

The government had estimated the number of these wild cats to be around 750, but this is the first time an extensive study is being carried out to substantiate the figure.

The project is also operational in Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh with support from the Wildlife Institute of India and the Nature Conservation Foundation.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at

The snow leopard: ghost of the mountains – Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera Mongolia research

Friday 17 December 2010

Snow leopards face the threats of poaching, habitat loss and diminishing prey. In remotest Mongolia, a research team is keeping tabs on this iconic and elusive species

By Nigel Richardson 7:00AM GMT 16 Dec 2010

The trail bike kicked up a plume of dust as it approached across the high desert steppe of south-west Mongolia. Orjan Johansson dismounted, unclipping the body protectors that made him look like the action hero of a computer game. ‘There was a leopard in the valley last night,’ he said. ‘I put my finger in the pee this morning and it was wet.’

Nobody said anything, we just thought it: if the traps had been built yesterday, we might have got one. We might have joined the tiny number of people alive on this planet who have seen a snow leopard in the wild. This most elusive and mysterious of big cats comes along only slightly more often than a unicorn, and if you are not prepared you can regret it for the rest of your life.

The one person not troubled by regret was Johansson himself, for in the history of biological research into Panthera uncia no one has had more physical contact with wild snow leopards than this 33-year-old PhD student from Sweden. From 1982 to 2008 biologists succeeded in capturing only 15 snow leopards (for the purpose of attaching radio or GPS collars) in their natural habitat. In the past two years a further 12 have been caught by one man, Johansson, a research associate at the Grimso Wildlife Research Station, which is affiliated to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. He is, in the words of Dr Koustubh Sharma, the conservation biologist supervising the Swede’s groundbreaking work in Mongolia, a ‘snow leopard catching machine’.

Johansson represents the sharp end of the world’s first long-term ecological study into the charismatic leopard, about which far less is known than any other of the big cats. Co-sponsored by two US-based non-profit organisations, the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera, the programme is now in its third year and scheduled to run for at least 15 years. In late August of this year – as summer in the high desert shaded into chilly nights and misty dawns – I joined Johansson and his backup team in their remote mountain camp.

The J Tserendeleg Snow Leopard Research Centre is located in a mountain range in Mongolia’s South Gobi province. In the far south-west of the province the Gobi Desert rises and crumples into a series of east-west ridges and valleys known as the Tost Mountains. This area, 75 miles long and 10 to 20 miles wide, is hardly classic snow leopard country, being neither particularly high – about 7,000ft – nor heavily snowbound in winter. But, for reasons that are not entirely understood, it sustains a high density of snow leopards. Based on his work of the past two years, Johansson puts the figure at more than 20.

The research centre comprises a base camp, where the ancillary team of biologists, researchers and volunteers stay a few days at a time and where I made my home for a week, and Johansson’s camp, which moves around depending on where he is working. At the end of August his camp was located nine miles from base camp (hence the trail bike) among a complex of flat, narrow valleys and jagged ranges of rock.

Here golden eagles and lammergeyer vultures soar above the ridge lines, and snow leopards descend from those ridges under the cloak of night to cross from one range to another. ‘There’s a lot of sign here,’ Johansson said, meaning the various indicators that betray their presence – not only urine, as he had seen that morning, but also images caught on automatic cameras, scrapes (in the ground, created when they kick their back legs), pug marks (paw prints), and scat (faeces).

Today was the start of a new collaring season for Johansson. The collars, equipped with GPS and costing more than £2,500 each, are highly sophisticated but they are programmed to drop off the animal when the batteries die after about one year. Only three of the collars he had previously attached were transmitting properly so it was time to capture and collar more cats. By mid-December he hoped to have 10 fully functioning collars beaming back the location and movement of snow leopards for many miles around.

This ongoing programme, the first of its kind, is yielding invaluable data on snow leopards’ home ranges (now known to be hundreds of square miles), kinship, genetic diversity and seasonal movements, and represents some of the most important and dramatic animal conservation work being undertaken anywhere on the planet in the early 21st century. The irony is that, bar Johansson himself, few of the biologists and researchers involved in it had even caught a glimpse of a snow leopard (and neither, of course, had I).

These snow leopard virgins included Koustubh Sharma, who has worked with tigers in India and completed his PhD on the rare four-horned antelope, the SLT’s conservation programmes director Jennifer Snell Rullman, and Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, who for the past 11 years has been at the forefront of community-based efforts to save the snow leopard and whose name in Mongolia is practically synonymous with the big cats. This omission may strike you as analogous to the Barcelona fan who has never set foot in the Camp Nou stadium, but the difference is that you can’t just buy a ticket. You have to get seriously lucky. And on the morning that Johansson rode up to tell us of the snow leopard presence the night before, even hardbitten scientists felt their luck had just tiptoed past them in the dark wearing a grin as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s.

T here are compelling reasons why the snow leopard is seldom seen. For a start there are not many of them left. In the past half-century their numbers have steadily diminished because of erosion of habitat and depletion of prey. During last winter, the worst in Mongolia for decades, some 10 million head of livestock died, and the effect on the snow leopards’ prey base (chiefly a wild goat called ibex, and argali sheep)
is not yet known.

But by far their biggest problem is depredation by man, despite their being an officially protected species. Poachers hunt them for their skins and for various body parts that are used in traditional Chinese medicine, while herders kill them in retaliation for the killing of their livestock. And in Mongolia a new threat looms. The government has granted a tranche of licences to foreign mining companies to look for coal in the district that includes the Tost Mountains. Should coal mining proceed there – as it already has on the plain nearby – the effect on the local snow leopard population will be catastrophic.

Estimates put the number currently living wild in the world at between 3,500 and 7,000 – far fewer, for example, than the population of domestic cats in a medium-size British town. Snow leopards are included in the Convention on Inter­national Trade in Endangered Species Appendix I, which is the critical list of 800 species threatened with extinction, and classified as ‘Endangered’ on the Inter­national Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Their inaccessible and inhospitable habitat casts them further into the shadows and margins. The snow leopard, which weighs between 55 and 100lb, generally lives at altitude along the horseshoe of high peaks that encircle central Asia, from the Altai Mountains in the north to the Himalayas in the south. Nominally belonging to a dozen countries, including Pakistan, India, Nepal and China as well as Mongolia, this is a realm that has more affinity with clouds than with nation states. Not only is its natural habitat remote but the snow leopard is also nocturnal and crepuscular and its camouflaged fur is highly effective – they are next to invisible to the human eye from any kind of distance.

The snow leopard’s coat – shading from smoky yellow to silver-white and overlaid with grey-black markings – seems to have a certain shape-shifting quality. ‘When I’ve worked with them close-to, they’re white, but from a distance they blend in with the rock,’ Johansson told me with a shrug. ‘I don’t know how it works.’ To enable them to cope with the altitude and mountainous terrain, nature has bestowed upon snow leopards deep chests that house powerful lungs, large nasal cavities, short, strong forelegs, long hind legs and the longest tail, in relation to its body, of any cat.

The tail – 35-40in long, as soft as pashmina and as heavy as rope on a galleon – is a wondrous appendage, used as both scarf and counterweight. Courtesy of this tail the snow leopard in motion is as finely balanced as a gyroscope, and as stealthy as mist. Dr Sharma showed me footage of one walking. Inadvertently it sets a stone rolling with one paw, and in the same movement bats the stone to a standstill so as not to make the slightest noise.

This combination of extreme rarity, striking physique and ghostlike grace gives the snow leopard unique cachet with humans. Western conservationists rally to its power as a ‘flagship species’, a charismatic presence around which awareness of wildlife issues can be raised, and the computer giant Apple even considered it sufficiently hip for ‘the world’s most advanced operating system’ to be named in its honour.

It has also given its name to one of the great English-language travel books of the past 30 years, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, in which his quest to see one in the mountains of Nepal becomes a metaphor for an inner, Buddhism-inspired journey of the soul. It is often forgotten, in the clouds of acclaim that have swirled around the book, that Matthiessen failed in his quest. He did not see a snow leopard. His rationale for this failure was something I had been trying to take on board while in Mongolia, in anticipation of my own failure: ‘If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard,’ he wrote. ‘If not, then somehow (and I don’t understand this instinct, even now) I am not ready to perceive it… and in the not-seeing, I am content.’

Orjan Johansson was aware of the semi-mystical aura surrounding the snow leopard, and the irony was not lost on him that a by-product of this long-term research project will be a certain demystifying of the ghost of the mountains. ‘We don’t know anything about them,’ he exclaimed. ‘How many cubs they have. How long they stay with their mothers. What they eat, even. We need this basic ecological knowledge as a base for good conservation practices. In a way we’re taking away the romantic picture, the mystique, which is sad, of course. But we can’t have them be like the unicorn, that nobody ever sees.’

Johansson was talking in his camp, where I was helping him build his snares. His camp was a ger – a traditional Mongolian nomad’s yurt, circular and made of felt. They can be surprisingly luxurious inside, with carpets, televisions and stoves. Johansson’s was a utilitarian space. Stacked in boxes were the tools of his trade: camera traps (triggered, like burglar alarm sensors, by heat and movement), GPS collars and the ironmongery needed to make snares.

A calendar featuring portraits of the Swedish royal family hung from a wall (August was Queen Silvia, but it wasn’t a decorative choice, he said, just the only calendar he could find in Sweden at short notice). A bowl of pet food betrayed the presence of Felis catus (a domestic cat), though she was currently out hunting in the mountains. ‘The cat’s called Friday,’ Johansson said, ‘because I feel like Robinson Crusoe out here.’

From the moment he builds the first trap of a new collaring season his life becomes by necessity ascetic and exhausting. Each trap is connected to a transmitter tuned to its own VHF frequency. When a trap is sprung it sounds an alarm in Johansson’s ger – always at night, for the wild creatures of the mountains are nocturnal. There are plenty of false alarms – a fox or goat – but in any case he must get to the trap site without delay in order to minimise the time the animal spends in the snare. As autumn turns to winter, and temperatures nosedive to -25C, the routine leaves him increasingly lonely, cold and sleep-deprived. ‘I’ve done 31 days with no one around, and that sucks,’ he told me. ‘Your face muscles don’t work properly because you haven’t been speaking. I have conversations with myself: Shall I have spaghetti today? Yeah, that’d be good.’

He usually has some contact with base camp, though the biologists and researchers there tend to come and go, and he does have neighbours. Lower down the valley, and in adjacent valleys, live a scattering of herder families in gers who graze small flocks of goats and sheep on gruel-thin pastureland. Every herder I spoke to had lost goats and sheep to snow leopards. ‘At least four or five a year,’ one of Johansson’s neighbours, 35-year-old Battur, reckoned. ‘But since the Snow Leopard Trust came we do not trap [and kill] them any more.’

The SLT has been doing sterling work in creating disincentives for the killing of snow leopards. Last year it inaugurated a livestock insurance scheme, and since 1999 Bayarjargal Agvaantseren has been coordinating an initiative called Snow Leopard Enterprises. Women from about 400 households are now involved across Mongolia, producing handicrafts that are sold at zoos and conferences in the US and in Europe. Last year sales exceeded £80,000, and all funds flow back to the herders. A condition of payment is that if a snow leopard is trapped and killed, the women living in the administrative area where it happened will forfeit a bonus. The scheme has already proved itself: last year a herder who killed a snow leopard was pressurised by the local community into compensating local women for the loss of that year’s windfall. He also faces a life-destroying fine of thousands of pounds.

As a result of such initiatives herders are getting the conservation message. Down the valley, Johansson negotiated with another neighbour, Garaa, over the proposed location of his new snares. ‘If it’s no trouble I will stay and build the traps here,’ the Swede told his neighbour. ‘Otherwise I will return in October when you have moved down the valley to your winter pasture.’ But the herder said it was no trouble. He promised he would keep his goats away from the snares – and would it be possible, he asked shyly, to come and have a look if a snow leopard was captured?

Trap building is an art and a science. First of all you have to find evidence of traffic, in particular the urine sprays that snow leopards leave for others to pick up. If you were facetious you might refer to these sprays as wee-mails and this is precisely the analogy chosen by Dr Sharma to describe the valley where Johansson had decided to build his traps. ‘It is like a very active Facebook page right now,’ he said.

Stalking along a wall of rock on one side of the valley, Johansson said, ‘All cats like following walls – think of your cat at home. It’s a good place to scout the valley from. So let’s follow this wall.’ He stopped where the rock wall turned sharply inwards. On the corner was an overhang. On the underside of the rock he indicated the dark urine stain and dropped down on all fours, turning himself into a snow leopard. ‘They will sniff this and rub their face in it.’ He pointed out the faint prickle of white hairs clinging to the rock. ‘And then they turn round and pee.’ He reversed up to the rock and raised his backside to demonstrate. ‘So this is a good place for a trap.’

He remained within the psyche of the snow leopard for several minutes while deliberating on the precise spot to site the trap, then worked with delicacy and method, like a bomb disposal expert in reverse, to build it. When the leopard steps on the trigger it throws up a snare that tightens in a noose around its leg. Made of semi-rigid steel aircraft cable, the snare cannot tighten beyond a certain point and will not cut into the leg. It is in turn attached to a steel spring that is firmly anchored in the ground, and to the transmitter that sends out the alarm signal.

The welfare of the animal is Johansson’s absolute priority. The throwing arm of the trigger is positioned so it cannot fly up and hit the leopard. There are swivels and a limiter on the spring so it cannot entangle the leopard nor spring back in a whiplash effect. And he takes a hammer to any sharp rock edges that the leopard might cut itself on as it twists and turns in its efforts to escape.

When he had completed our first trap he stood back, narrowed his eyes and stared at the snare site. All I could see was a faint, craterlike outline in the dirt. ‘What do you think?’ he said. ‘Shall I move that rock?’ Without waiting for a reply he bent and moved it – half an inch – like a painter squinting at a canvas and making minute brushstrokes of adjustment. By 7pm the sun had gone from the valley, the wind had got up and we had built four traps.

Johansson ate at base camp that evening. He had not seen Cat Friday for two days, and feared she had been killed. He did not appreciate the fearful symmetry inherent in the idea of the little cat being taken by the big. ‘I liked Friday. I had her for two years. It kind of sucks,’ he said gloomily, contemplating a lonely autumn.

After supper he clipped the body protectors back on and rode back to his ger. The arrangement was that if a trap was sprung in the night he would call base camp on his satellite phone and we would drive over to the valley in the camp vehicle. I went to sleep with my socks on. At midnight the satellite phone sounded deafeningly in our ger. My legs were out of the sleeping bag and into my trousers before Dr Sharma answered it. Sharma listened and then said, with admirable calmness in the circumstances, ‘We’ve got a snow leopard.’

It was a female and she had been caught in the first trap we had built. Johansson had darted her by the time we got there. She lay unconscious and blindfolded on a camouflaged survival blanket beneath a perfect half-moon and nine bobbing head-torches. I saw what Johansson meant about the coat. It glowed white, seeming to return with interest the light that beamed down on her.

For seven of the nine of us present it was our first wild snow leopard. We hovered in awe, taking photographs and not believing our luck. I stroked the tail and scooped a hand under it to feel the heft. In the chiaroscuro effect of the light from our headlamps and the looks of rapt attention on our faces, the scene resembled Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.

Meanwhile, Johansson and Sharma worked deftly and quietly on the body on the blanket, measuring and weighing her, taking blood and hair samples, cleaning up minor wounds and fitting the GPS collar, while keeping her eyes moistened and checking her vital signs every 10 minutes. Johansson, who was in his element, said at one point, ‘This is like a family reunion.’

Two hours after being detained in our world the snow leopard melted back to her own, having received the antidote to the knockout dart. For the record, she weighed 79lb, her body was 45in long and her tail 38½in. Her age was put at between four and six, she had suckled, though not recently, and the data now being sent back by her collar will be of untold benefit to the long-term conservation of this beleaguered species. But she kept some secrets to herself. You can’t hang beauty on a weighing scale, nor hold up a tape measure to grace.

Postscript Johansson’s cat, Friday, was alive after all. He found her living with a herder family in the next valley and claimed her back. The collared snow leopard was named Khashaa. You can follow her progress at (see under Blog) where you can find out more about the Snow Leopard Trust and make donations. See also

Nigel Richardson flew to Mongolia on Korean Air (, via Seoul, and is indebted to Panoramic Journeys (01608-811183; for arranging his travel within Mongolia. Additional reporting by S Bolortuya

Altaisky Zapovednik press release: snow leopard habitat study in the Argut River Valley (Altai Republic)

PRESS RELEASE – Altaisky Zapovednik
Mikhail Paltsyn,

09 December 2010

On November 30, Altaisky Zapovednik finished an expedition to study snow leopard habitat in the Argut River Valley (Altai Republic). The expedition was organized as part of the UNDP/GEF project. Zapovednik staff, local residents from Inegen, and two Mongolian snow leopard specialists participated in the work.

Field work occurred in the lower portion of the Argut River watershed to the Shavla River, as well as the left bank of the Argut River between the mouths of the Shavla and Koir Rivers. The main goals of the expedition were to search for evidence of snow leopard activity and to survey population numbers for Siberian mountain goats in the given area. During the work, both traditional means (searching evidence of life: claw-rakes, scrapes, scent-markings, and pugmarks) and camera-trapping were used. Ungulate population levels were assessed visually on study routes. Across the entire research area, over 600 Siberian mountain goats were counted, numbers that are comparable to data gathered in 2007 and 2008 at this same site.

Over the course of the study more than 18 camera-traps installed in early October along the left bank of the Argut River between the Koir and Shavla Rivers were checked. The camera-traps were set up along intersections of mountain paths (narrow, low ridges, cliff ledges, and ravine passages) that are unavoidable for local species passing through the area. It should be noted that in these specific places the team found traces of old poaching snares. In addition to numerous mountain goats, the camera-traps recorded images of practically all the animal representatives of the Argut Valley including maral deer, musk deer, sable, and foxes. The automatic cameras photographed four different lynx and even captured three instances of the extremely cautious wolf. However, no snow leopard was photographed. The camera traps were distributed at optimal density for discovering the existence of snow leopard (1 camera per 10-16 sq. km) and they were left in place for over 30 days. For these reasons, we are confident that there are essentially no snow leopards in the research area between the mouths of the Koir and Shavla Rivers. The absence of snow leopards in the given area is further supported by the fact that no verifiable traces of this predator’s life activities were discovered here either.

The right banks of the Argut River between the Shavla and Koir Rivers were not yet possible to study, because the river ice is not yet thick enough, rendering a crossing there either impossible or extremely dangerous. This area, as well as the the Koir and Yungur Rivers basins, will be studied using camera traps in December 2010-March 2011. To date since October 2010, only a small portion of snow leopard habitat in the Argut watershed has been studied (the area below the mouth of the Shavla River and the left bank of the Argut River between the mouths of the Shavla and Koir Rivers). The rare predator has not yet been found in the region despite excellent snow leopard habitat and high populations of Siberian mountain goat – a primary prey animal for snow leopards.

The fieldwork was supported by WWF, Panthera Foundation, Altai
Assistance Project, and The Altai Project.

Challenges of Climate Change in the Mountains Highlighted in Cancun

Experts from leading institutions and government organisations working in the field of climate change in the Himalayan region called attention to mountain issues and challenges in the light of climate change. They linked these issues to the debate on how to mainstream the sustainable development agenda while planning adaptation and mitigation activities, including the management of risks and hazards in fragile mountain environments, and called on mountainous countries to join the Mountain Initiative promoted by the Government of Nepal.


Mountain Initiative for Climate Change

The Mountain Initiative for Climate Change Adaptation in Mountain Regions was initiated by the Government of Nepal. ICIMOD is providing technical support.

The rationale for the Mountain Initiative
Objectives and expected outcome of the Mountain Initiative
Steps taken by the Government of Nepal
Recent documents

Mountains cover around 24% of the Earth’s land surface and host about 13% of the world population. Mountains are the providers of essential ecosystem services and play the role of water towers to billions of people living in downstream slopes, valleys and plains – directly and indirectly. In Asia, the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) mountain system, also referred to as the third pole, contains the largest volume of snow and ice outside the polar region. The Hindu Kush-Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Pamir, and Atlas mountain systems all play a critical role. As a source of water flows and river systems, the world’s mountain watersheds support livelihoods and food security for almost half of the global population. Notwithstanding the significant role of mountain ecosystems, the mountain agenda is not addressed adequately by the UNFCCC deliberations to reflect the needs of mountain livelihoods and environments. Realising this, the Prime Minister of Nepal in his address to COP 15 said:

“I therefore take this opportunity to call on all the mountain countries and stakeholders to come together, form a common platform and make sure that mountain concerns get due attention in the international deliberations. Let us make sure that our interests are prominently represented in future COP negotiations and let us make sure that our efforts towards adaptation obtain the required international support.”

Mountain people, particularly the disadvantaged and marginalised groups, suffer from increasing poverty, natural hazards, deprivation and socioeconomic conflicts. Climate change has exacerbated these challenges. Climate change, natural hazards and other forces threaten the functioning of the complex web of life and livelihoods that mountains support. The consequences of poverty and environmental degradation reach far beyond mountain communities, and escalating numbers of landslides, mudslides, catastrophic ἀoods and other natural disasters in highland areas adversely affect the densely populated lowlands. Moreover, the rapid melting of mountain glaciers and degradation of watersheds is reducing water availability and increasing conἀicts over dwindling natural resources and supplies. These changes will be felt most immediately by poor and isolated mountain communities, who have little capacity to cope with and adapt to these changes. The consequences for the billions of people downstream of major mountain areas who depend on critical environmental resources provided by mountains, mainly water, biodiversity and hydrological processes, will be equally severe.

The rationale for the Mountain Initiative
The ongoing UNFCCC processes on its key elements such as adaptation, mitigation, technology transfer, financing and capacity building, have so far not addressed the specific situation of mountain systems, especially the increased physical and socioeconomic vulnerability of its population. Countries that have large mountain areas have been raising issues individually in various COP sessions, Ad-hoc Working groups of the UNFCCC process and multilateral environmental agreements (MEA), but so far they have not been able to inἀuence the negotiation process in favour of the global mountain agenda in the context of the climate change. In order to bridge this gap and ensure that the benefit from climate change conventions accrues also to mountain ecosystems and the protection of the lives and livelihoods of their vulnerable and disaster-prone people, some of the mountain countries have realised the need to take a collective approach and bringing countries that have mountain ecosystems together in a single forum. Nepal in consultation with various regional and global stakeholders including the Mountain Partnership has launched this initiative. A proposal has been made to initiate a ‘Mountain Alliance Initiative for Climate Change’ to provide a framework within which mountain countries in collaboration with mountain specialized global and regional agencies can work together to understand better the changes occurring in mountains and comprehend the challenges they face as a result of climate and global changes. The Alliance will advocate for better attention and action in order to reduce the risk and build resilient mountain communities, while maintaining the vital mountain-based ecosystem services for the welfare of the billions of people living downstream.

Objectives and expected outcome of the Mountain Initiative
The Government of Nepal, in collaboration with major development partners including the Mountain Partnership (MP), ICIMOD and other key global and regional stakeholders especially among the Asian and Andean countries, will take the lead in this Initiative to further better communication of the anticipated impacts of climate change in mountains to global communities. Concerted efforts will be made to bring all the major mountainous countries from the HKH, Andean, Alpine, Pamir and Atlas regions on board with the objective of mobilizing meaningful support and ensuring solidarity to enable the Alliance to achieve the goal of securing global attention for the situation in mountain ecosystems and mountain populations. Through organization of stakeholder consultations and conferences at regional and global levels, the MAI aims to promote the specific concerns of mountain ecosystems and livelihoods within the ongoing UNFCCC negotiations. More specifically, the Alliance will document and analyse specific climate change scenarios and impacts in the high mountains and highlands, gather best practices and information about local knowledge and propose different options available, and share these in the preparatory meetings of MEAs, and Subsidiary Bodies (SBI and SBSTA) leading up to the COP 16 in Mexico and beyond. The aim is to see the outcome of these efforts included in the form of a resolution on specific climate adaptation related instruments, mechanisms and programmes for mountains that might then be included in the legally binding agreements under the UNFCCC and/or other MEAs.

Steps taken by the Government of Nepal
The Government of Nepal (GoN) endorsed this initiative in May 2010 and has designated the Ministry of Environment (MoE) as the focal ministry to carry forward the tasks of the Mountain Alliance Initiative. A Secretariat has been established within the Ministry to coordinate the related activities and mobilize support from the stakeholders. A Steering Committee to guide the MAI process, and an organizing committee to organize the Ministerial meetings of the mountain countries, have been set up. In view of the likelihood that such an ambitious goal may not be achievable within one year, the GoN has planned both short and medium-term activities with an initial planning horizon of three years.

Recent documents
•Global Climate Financing Mechanisms and Mountain Systems (2010)
•Mountain Initiative Status Paper (2010)
•International Expert Consultation Meeting: Mountain Initiative on Climate Change (2010)

Wildlife genetics and its applications for snow leopard conservation in Nepal

By Dibesh Karmacharya

As they gracefully navigate through the high Himalayan mountain landscape, the elusive and endangered snow leopards exemplify nature’s greatest gift to all of us. Snow leopards are found throughout the Himalayan region. These magnificent creatures are the quintessential top carnivore, often the main balancing factor for all the downstream preys; sustaining the fine ecological balance.

Nepal’s high Himalaya region provides excellent refuse to snow leopards. It is estimated that there are close to 400 snow leopards in Nepal spread throughout pockets of various conservation areas. But the exact number of this species in Nepal remains to be studied. There are various reasons why experts believe the exact number of snow leopard found in Nepal could be much lower than the estimated number. Snow leopard’s long-term viability has continuously been threatened by conflict with locals because of livestock depredation-sometimes resulting in retaliatory killings. Loss of habitat and declining prey numbers due to their preferred grazing areas being encroached for livestock usage are also some of the major contributing factors for snow leopard’s declining numbers.

Furthermore, there is active illicit trans-border market for wildlife animal parts in the northern frontiers of Nepal and Tibet; as a result poaching has become widespread. As substitute to tiger bones and other tissue parts, Asian traditional medicine market has an increasing demand for bones and other tissue parts of endangered felids such as snow leopard. This has exacerbated the threat of snow leopards in Nepal.

Prior to any effective conservation strategy being designed and implemented, it is crucial to gather reasonable data on estimation of existing abundance and distribution of snow leopard in Nepal. However because of elusive, solitary nature of snow leopard and its rugged rocky terrain habitat, information available is sparse and inadequate on their actual distribution and population status.

Majority of snow leopard studies have consisted of surveys that relied upon sign (e.g. pugmarks, scrapes and scats), interviews with local inhabitants, and camera trapping. However, these approaches have several disadvantages including the need for extended time in the field (>40–50 days), the difficulty of setting camera traps in snow leopard habitat, and the high cost of field work in remote areas. Hence additional methods to supplement sign surveys and camera trapping therefore become essential for effective monitoring of snow leopards.

Genetic analysis has become an effective and popular method and is used in all aspects of wildlife biology and conservation. Since portions of genome of every individual is unique; use of genetic tools yield highly specific information which in turn can be used in various aspects of wildlife biology such as migration rates, population size, bottlenecks and kinship. Genetic analysis can also be utilised to identify species, sex and individuals; and provide insight on its population trend as well as to gather other taxonomic level information. Since it is infeasible to enumerate populations of low density, wide-ranging and elusive species like snow leopards, non-invasive methods of detecting snow leopards by using scat or fecal sample have been frequently employed to infer estimations on the number of individuals in a certain area; moreover, this method has also been favoured for eliminating the need for direct interactions (invasive) that could potentially have adverse effects on animal welfare.

Most of the non-invasive wildlife genetics methods involve extracting genetic material (DNA) from the fecal matter, and then subjecting that DNA for species and sex identification molecular assay-mainly Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Same DNA can also be subjected to DNA fingerprinting assay to derive individual identification and characterisation. Phylogenetics can also be carried out to draw evolutionary relatedness among populations found at different areas, thereby helping us draw “genetic movement map” and figure out whether there is any gene flow between separate populations. So with the molecular or genetic technique, not only we will be able to tell whether fecal matter or any biological sample belongs to certain species, say snow leopard, but also we will be able to tell whether it is male or female and also whether two samples are from the same individual or are coming from different individuals.

The applications and utilisation of such information are not only confined to population estimation and trend analysis, but they can also be used to draw complete genetic relationship maps between various populations and thereby help us comprehend wildlife habit and habitat of endangered species like snow leopards in landscape level- this whole new field of wildlife biology is also known as Landscape genomics. Molecular based wildlife forensics can be a very effective tool to fight against poaching. DNA fingerprinting as it is commonly known can be used to identify an unknown tissue or any animal part and see if it belongs to any endangered species.

Currently, efforts are underway to initiate genetic based wildlife research in Nepal. The Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, based in Kathmandu, has embarked into this field in collaboration with various wildlife conservation related governmental and non-governmental organisations. It is very important that our policy makers, academicians and conservation enthusiasts are all on board to review our current conservation efforts more closely and utilise new upcoming technologies to gather accurate information, which in turn will help us in designing effective conservation strategies. In that context, the currently available wildlife genetics tools can be polished to fit Nepal’s needs in her conservation efforts.

(Dibesh Karmacharya is the International Director of the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal and can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Kabul zoo officials in India seeking snow leopards

(AFP) – 1 day ago

KANPUR, India — A team of Afghan officials are in India to find an elephant and leopards for Kabul’s war-damaged zoo but transportation through Pakistan could be a problem, they said Thursday.

The Afghan capital’s zoo suffered severe damage during Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime and the authorities are now working to restock with animals donated from India.

“Afghanistan wants an elephant, a leopard and a snow leopard from India because at present it does not have these animals,” Kabul zoo director Aziz Gul Saqeb, who is leading the five-member team in India, told AFP.

“Indian authorities have agreed to help us regarding the upkeep of the elephant once it is transported to Kabul,” he said after inspecting animals in a state-run zoo in the northern Indian town of Kanpur.

Kabul zoo’s showpiece lion Marjan, who was blinded by a grenade blast in 1993, died in 2002.

India and Afghanistan have enjoyed good ties and since the US-led invasion ended the Taliban’s regime. Delhi has committed 1.3 billion dollars to Afghanistan — mainly aid for social services including health and education.

Some 4,000 Indians are building roads, sanitation projects and power lines in Afghanistan, and India is also building the new Afghan parliament.

Zoo chief Saqeb said his officials faced the prospect of a difficult journey with the animals through troubled Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2010 AFP.