The strikingly beautiful snow leopards have always been a challenge to track down. The elusive big cats of the Himalayan range live in harsh and punishing terrain that comprises of rocky cliffs, strong winds and extreme temperatures. Known as the ‘ghost of the mountains’ for their solitary nature, the snow leopard is classified as a Schedule I animal under the Wildlife Protection Act of India and is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. With little information regarding their territorial distribution, WWF India estimates there are as little as 500 snow leopards left in India. The group has been working in Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim since 2006 having undertaken numerous conservation and tracking projects to protect the big cats’ dwindling population.
In Sikkim, interacting with local yak herders gave the team relevant information about snow leopard sightings, but hearsay wouldn’t hold as evidence of the animal’s existence and movements. WWF-India set up camera traps in 2015, a part of a project called ‘Conservation and Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountain,’ which is expected to be completed by 2017. As stated in their report, the project aimed to gain insight “on the status of snow leopards, their wild prey base, and the threats that the snow leopard’s face in the state of Sikkim. The setting up of camera traps proved fruitful, and now, WWF India finally has photographic proof with the images of the big cat being captured for the first time at not one but four different locations in North Sikkim. The report states that along with the snow leopard other mountain wildlife such as the rare pallas cat, blue sheep and the Tibetan argali too now have visual documentation.
“This is the first attempt to fill the vast gaps in knowledge on snow leopards from this important snow leopard habitat. Conservation efforts for these animals in India have so far been largely restricted to the Western Himalayas,” reads WWF India’s report. “The snow leopards in Sikkim are contiguous with its populations in Nepal, making it one of the key habitats for ensuring the animal’s long term survival in the Eastern Himalayas. WWF India is committed to add to the existing conservation efforts on snow leopards by addressing the knowledge gaps and scaling up successful conservation models.”
The information gathered in the camera trap study will provide the “first-ever baseline fate on the status of snow leopards.” The photographic proof will play a key role in engaging and educate the local communities on the importance of protecting the animal for poachers as well as to prevent retaliation killings from the villagers when their livestock is attacked; “Addressing retaliatory killing of snow leopards due to livestock depredation, managing the population of free ranging dogs and securing livelihoods of local communities, especially by targeting the community resilience towards climate-induced changes, are the pillars of our conservation efforts in this region,” explained Dr. Dipankar Ghose, director of the Species and Landscapes programme. But now, as Rishi Kumar Sharma, Snow Leopard Coordinator of WWF India stated, with growing bank of credible scientific information, “WWF India envisions a future where the snow leopards thrive in the high mountains and the local communities benefit from a resilient and productive ecosystem.”
Click here to read the full WWF India report.