Snow leopard – Poster child of the Himalayas: Bhutan Climate Summit

Nov 18, 2011
Save snow leopards to save Himalayas

Saving its trans-Himalayan habitat is the first step to saving the species
Bhutan Climate Summit In the face of climate vulnerability in the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan regions, it is important to secure connected climate resilient habitat areas for the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in the large conservation landscape.

In a presentation on snow leopard conservation and climate change, a conservation scientist of the world wildlife fund (WWF) in United States, Dr Eric Wikramanayake, said snow leopards are a large carnivore with large home ranges, and that an effective snow leopard conservation cannot be done in small fragmented patches. “They need large special areas.”

He also said snow leopards live in a relatively narrow band of alpine habitat, the broken rugged terrain between 3,000 and 4,500m above sea level.

Dr Eric Wikramanayake, speaking during the side event of the upcoming Bhutan Climate Summit, said that a study on the climate vulnerability of this iconic and mystical species in the Himalayas showed that the snow leopard is the top carnivore of the Himalayan mountains, and is actually a species that links three countries of India, Nepal and Bhutan.

“It’s global population, including the trans-Himalayan region and central Asia, is guesstimated at around 4,500 to 7,000 and they occur at a population density of 1 to 5 snow leopards in every 100 sq km, depending on habitat and prey availability, but they are killed and persecuted in all ranges,” he said.

Dr Eric Wikramanayake also said that, based on the biological attributes and threats, snow leopards are listed as endangered species in IUCN Red List of threatened species. “But now a new threat to snow leopard and its habitat looms and that is climate change.”

It is predicted that the temperatures in the Himalayas will increase by three degree Celsius by 2050, and by about 5 degree Celsius at the end of the century. Precipitation is also predicted to increase as the monsoonal rains become more intense, and even exert the influence all the way to the Tibetan plateau.

The conservation scientist said regionally as much of about 30 percent of the alpine habitats will be lost, but more importantly, there will be about 40 percent of habitat loss in Nepal and about 50 percent of loss in Bhutan and about 20 percent in India.

The warmer and wetter conditions are projected to cause flora from the lower elevations to move upslope and intrude into the alpine areas, which is the habitat of the snow leopard, and reduce the extend of available habitat, fragmenting them into small patches.

“As a top vibrant carnivore, with specialised habitat requirement, snow leopards can be considered as an umbrella species, further high Himalayan biodiversity as well as the indicator of the species changes that we expect to take place in these high Himalayan ecosystem,” Dr Eric Wikramanayake said.

Explaining a climate modeling of snow leopard habitat, he said, in the Himalayas, there will be loss of alpine habitat along the southern boundaries of the ecosystem, but there will also be significant intrusion of forests along the rivers that cut into the mountains, isolating and fragmenting the alpine habitat.

The conservation scientists also said it is a must to create a mechanism and forum for conservation and management of the alpine ecosystem. “We need to think about cascading impacts of ecological interactions and work with local communities for sustainable livestock grazing and medicinal plant collections,” Dr Eric Wikramanayake said.

He said that as some of the large mammals that live in the lower forest will also move upslope and begin to compete with snow leopard for resources and some, like in Bhutan, tigers will predate on snow leopards.

Dr Eric Wikramanayake also said there are also other concerns and implication beyond the snow leopard.

He said that people have been using these alpine grasslands for grazing and in recent years, livestock herds have grown considerably, resulting in depredation of physiologically sensitive high altitude grasslands.

“Even now, people hunt wild animals but in future, as resource competition increases in smaller spaces, the intensity of persecution of wild animals is likely to increase, as snow leopard will rely on domestic livestock and this will increase human-snow leopard conflict.”

The conservation scientist said that it is important to adopt these recommendations, as saving snow leopard is not about saving the species but saving Himalayas, saving the high altitudes ecosystem and reducing climate vulnerability of biodiversity, of people, and economies of the countries.

“It’s about sustaining the ecological processes and environmental flows, especially water that affects millions of people far down stream from the actual snow leopard habitat,” Dr Eric Wikramanayake said.

By Tashi Dema

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 )

Snow leopard skin seized in Palmar of Jammu, India, western Himalaya

Based on villagers’ information on the smuggling of parts of wild animals by a group of smugglers, the police launched a manhunt in Palmar of Jammu, western Himalaya and confiscated a snow leopard from the arrested person.

6 November 2011

Effort to save snow leopard in Taplejung, Nepal

Added At: 2010-10-21 12:19 AM
The Himalayan Times
Himalayan News Service

TAPLEJUNG; Locals of Gunsa village in the district have started to train local yak and sheep herders on the conservation of the endangered snow leopard that is found in the Kanchanjangha Conservation Area.

“Shepherds spark wildfires, chop down trees and make noise, thus disturbing snow leopards habitats. Keeping this tendency in mind, we decided to train them on the importance of the rare species,” said Himali Chundak, chairman of the Snow Leopard Conservation Sub-Committee.

Chundak added that the training was intended to conserve snow leopards and attract more tourists in the conservation area during the Nepal Tourism Year-2011.

Dandu Sherpa, a local, said villagers train shepherds visiting their farms and even in forest areas. Consequently, the hostility against the snow leopards and encroachment on their habitat has reduced of late.

Sujit Kumar Shrestha, manager of the conservation area project, said villagers were actively involved in the conservation of the rare wildlife. “Recognising its contribution to wildlife conservation, the World Wildlife Fund has honoured the sub-committee with Abraham Conservation Award,” said Shrestha.

Snow leopard is an internationally protected wildlife species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Climatic calamities and endangered species

Written by Syed Mujahid Ali Shah, by email

15 August 2010 The recent heavy rains in northern mountainous belts of Pakistan are hardly going to spare wild fauna from devastating their habitats as that of human population.

Among all such animals, the most concerned specie is snow leopard. They are already threatened being left only a few hundreds in these mountain ranges due to ongoing prey depletion of theirs following dry conditions caused by ever increasing temperature trends. But a wet calamity of heavy rains during recent weeks anticipates a new threat.

The unusual heavy summer rainfall situations are opposite to that of normal weather conditions of snow leopard habitats in the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges of Gilgit Baltistan and Chitral. This drastic change in climate can create vegetation rich landscape situation where snow leopards and its prey species cannot live.

As the ideal habitat of these animals is open semi desert rocky mountains—out of dense vegetations like those of Chilghoza pine near nival zones of Himalayas and Karakoram. On the other hand huge rainfall situations, as some recently recorded 100 mm/h in Baltistan and Ladakh regions, being semi desert rocky hills, they are easily eroded and lose most of the soil. What leaves behind may be just rock, unable to produce enough fodder for the species of Markhor, ibex, Marcopolo sheep and the musk deer on which snow leopards thrive. Isn’t the world becoming so unsafe for both human and animals from carbon emissions in bulk? If timely steps were not taken to cut the greenhouse gases by the industrialised nations, such species would just wither away.

Himalayan Snow Leopard Research Centre to be set up in Himachal Pradesh, India

Friday, June 18, 2010

Shimla: With an aim to boost research and conservation of snow Leopards in the country, Himachal Pradesh would soon set up an international level research centre in Spiti valley, a senior officer of state Forest department said today.

“Himalayan Snow Leopard Research Centre” would be set up in Spiti valley of tribal Lahaul & Spiti district under the scheme of integrated development of wild life, principal chief conservator of forest AK Gulati told PTI.

“The Rs5.50 crore project to be funded by Union ministry of forest and environment, would emphasis on research and training on conservation of snow Leopard”, Gulati added.

This would be the first comprehensive snow Leopard radio collaring centre in India, he said.

The centre would have a fully equipped field station laboratory with necessary instruments, he added.

Only Mongolia has such facility at present.

The HP has a population of 35 snow Leopards as per 2004 census out of which 23 is in Spiti valley itself, Gulati said.

Project launched to save endangered snow leopard (India)


Project launched to save endangered snow leopard


Srinagar, Dec 31: The State Government has started work on an ambitious project to save the existing population of the endangered Snow Leopard in its bastion, the higher reaches of Ladakh with focus on its habitat improvement. After receiving financial assistance from the Centre, the wildlife authorities have started work on the ‘Project Snow leopard’ in Ladakh. The project will span 3500 sq kms including Hemis High Altitude National Park in Ladakh. Pertinently snow leopards are mostly found in mountainous regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Poached for its attractive fur, organs and bones, just 4500 to 7000 snow leopards left in the world and India is home to approximately 400 to 600 of them. However as sixty percent of snow leopards have been found in Ladakh region, it has been included in the Species Recovery Programme being funded through the umbrella scheme ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’. “We have completed micro-planning and identified the areas with huge concentration of leopards in Ladakh. Besides we have started the process to develop infrastructure and capacity building of staff,” wildlife warden Ladakh, Saleem-ul-Haq, told Greater Kashmir. He said involvement of locals in the project, however, was imperative for its success. He said the department has approached wildlife experts from outside who will raise awareness about the leopard among the locals and the wildlife staff. Officials said hundreds of tourists visit Ladakh only to see the snow leopard. “To cash on this aspect, the project has kept a provision for eco-tourism wherein the locals will host the tourists in their houses. This will serve dual purpose of promoting tourism and snow leopard conservation through community participation,” he said. However, he maintained that leopards had no threat of poaching in Ladakh. “People here have strong religious beliefs and love for the wild animals. The only problem is that the leopards kill their livestock. We will stress on mitigating attacks on livestock,” he said. The authorities plan to install special trap cameras in highly concentrated areas of the snow leopard. “The special cameras will record the leopards’ movement and help the scientists to understand their behaviour in their natural habitat,” he said and added this will help in long-term conservation measures. Haq said freezing temperate was the only bottleneck for the project’s speedy implementation. The project includes developing grazing and management policies along with promotion of conservation and education awareness initiatives. Besides construction of Nature interpretation Centre, the project endeavours procurement of high resolution digital cameras, survey and census gadgets and equipments for handling human-wild animal conflicts. “One of the threats to the snow leopard is drastic decrease of its ungulate preys including wild sheep and goats. The project includes compensation packages for livestock depletion. It is mandatory to preserve the natural habitat of snow leopard for its conservation,” said Tahir Shawl a wildlife warden, who has worked extensively on the snow leopard. Pertinently the Project Snow Leopard was launched in January this year. It is being undertaken in five Himalayan states including Jammu and Kashmir with the support from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Mysore based Nature Conservation Foundation. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has sanctioned Rs 1.26 crore for the project. Importantly the Project Snow Leopard will be treated on a par with other flagship species programmes of the country such as Project Tiger and Project Elephant.