Prey clue to snow leopard habitat

In lambs, a whiff of elusive predator – Prey clue to snow leopard habitat

Posted by VoiceofSikkim on Aug 13, 2010
The Telegraph

Gangtok, Aug. 12: A two-year project in Sikkim has documented the habitat of snow leopards and their main prey, blue sheep and the Himalayan tahr. The predator is known to be elusive and the project’s aim was to collect evidence of its presence by tracking down its prey along the 4,200-sqkm trans-Himalayan corridors of East, West and North districts of Sikkim.

The project has been taken up jointly by The Mountain Institute India and Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation in consultation with the Sikkim forest department.

All the three high-altitude animals are highly endangered species and fall under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.

“This project is an effort to document the snow leopard’s presence in Sikkim using indirect evidences, the occurrence of their main prey. We also are developing an understanding of resource use by the local communities to factor in their needs and possible role in conservation,” said Ghanashyam Sharma, TMI-India programme manager.

The project, which started on April 1, 2008, concluded on March 31, 2010.

Over the past two years, NCF and TMI-India officials toured the areas of Sikkim above 5,000 metres, documenting snow leopard presence and keeping track of habitats of blue sheep and Himalayan tahr.

“The project will help identify critical snow leopard areas that can form the basis for landscape level conservation in the Sikkim Himalayas. In particular, the information on wildlife, local resource use, threats and local governance mechanism generated by this project will greatly aid in the landscape identification and preparation of the Management Plan mandated by the Project Snow Leopard,” said TMI-India in its report.

The state forest department has already identified snow leopard habitat spread over West, North and East Sikkim. This includes West and North Kanchenjungha National Park, Lhonak Valley, Tso Lhamo-Lashar-Yumesamdong complex and Tembawa-Jelep La based on extensive work conducted earlier in 2001-02 in addition to collaborative work with other institutions.

The forest department and other agencies have collected 33 snow leopard evidences that include scat as well as sightings made by herders and villagers in the high altitude areas since 1980. A bulk of these evidence were from the Dzongri-Lampokri area in West Sikkim and Tsho Lamu-Laseher in North district. The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, had set up camera traps in 2009 and captured the photographs of two snow leopards.
A himal rakshak or honorary mountain guardian, Phupu Tshering Bhutia, had collected a fresh pug mark in Yambong in West Sikkim in 2009, the report said.
“We did not use high-tech gadgets and instead relied on information provided by the herders and physical evidence like scat,” said Suraj Subba, the research assistant for the project.

State wildlife officer Usha Lachungpa said the Union ministry for environment and forests had launched Project Snow Leopard in January 2009 covering Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. “We are currently drafting the funding proposal for the project that will strengthen conservation efforts,” she said.

Article from August 2006: Endangered cats leave ‘trail of fear’: Snow leopards tracked by monitoring fright of their prey.

Published online 10 August 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060807-12

Endangered cats leave ‘trail of fear’: Snow leopards tracked by monitoring fright of their prey.

Michael Hopkin

The endangered snow leopard has returned to the valleys around Mount Everest, say wildlife researchers working in Nepal. And how do they know it’s back? Because the leopards’ traditional prey are terrified.

Tracking top predators by spotting the fear they instil in their prey could offer a new way to monitor the conservation status of rare animals, says Som Ale of the University of Illinois-Chicago, who came up with the idea. “We can get clues about their whereabouts from the behaviour of their main prey species,” he says.

He and his colleague Joel Brown tracked the elusive snow leopard (Uncia uncia) by observing the behaviour of its usual prey, the Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), a relative of wild goats.

The leopards, of which there are only around 6,000 left in the wild, had vanished completely from the foothills of Everest after the region was opened up to tourists in the years following the first conquest of the mountain in 1953.

The tahr have had a relatively easy ride since 1976, when Everest and the surrounding area were declared a national park. But since 2000, their population has stopped growing and the number of mothers with young has dwindled, leading some conservationists to suspect that the snow leopard was back.

The problem lay in proving it — spotting the leopards is immensely difficult. “For many conservationists it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Ale says. But the tahr are much better at spotting leopards; after all, their lives can depend on it.

On the look-out
The researchers therefore sought to spot the hallmarks of fear among the previously complacent tahr. Signs include ears standing on end, eyes focused into the distance, and a whistling cry used to communicate danger to other tahr.

Ale and Brown found that the tahr were most vigilant on cliffs and in open forests. And when they checked these habitats, they found droppings and paw-prints from the leopards. Ale presented the results at the meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Memphis, Tennessee.

What’s more, observation of the tahr led to six direct sightings of the leopards, Ale says. Simply watching the tahr will not allow a census of the leopard population. But if it leads to direct leopard visuals it may be valuable in estimating how many leopards are living in the area.

Of course, the plan would not have worked at all but for the fact that the tahr have no other natural predators, meaning that they only get scared of leopards. Not even the local people are a threat. “The people who live there are Sherpas, who are Buddhists,” Ale explains.

That meant that the researchers could get within some 20 metres of the tahr without causing them to flee, says Ale — which was useful for monitoring their behaviour. “And it meant we got really good photos of them,” he adds.

Locals Fleecing Professional Blue Sheep Hunters, Nepal

Nepal: Professional hunters who come to hunt the blue sheep and Himalatan tahr in Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, are forced to pay more than six-fold to local communities than their hunting fee set by the government. A hunter has to pay NPR 40,000 for a trophy blue sheep and Rs 20,000 for a Himalayan tahr to the government. Now they have to pay NPR 250,000 to locals otherwise they are not allowed to hunt desptie having a license.

March 29, 2010
The Himalayan Times

Thanks to Headlines Himalaya, March 22-31 (104), 2010 edition for the translation of this article.