Bhutan snow leopards
Bhutan is a small and beautiful Himalayan country. It is a spiritual place with emphasis on “Gross National Happiness “ being as important as the more common economic indicator, standard of living, -“Gross Domestic Product”.
Bhutan’s flora and fauna represents enormous diversity and the spectacular rugged mountains, swift rivers and deep valleys are home to antelope, marmots, blue sheep, tiger, Himalayan musk deer, Tibetan wolves, takins (Bhutan’s national animal) and snow leopards.
Bhutan’s mountains have been an excellent habitat for snow leopard in the past. Remote, high and with significant prey species like deer and marmots, snow leopard areas have had minimal human impact. But this has changed with increased village growth and increased livestock numbers especially yaks. Snow leopards are losing habitat. As wild prey decreases snow leopards often attack domestic livestock. Like many other countries where villagers share snow leopard habitat there have been reports of snow leopards killed in retaliation for killing yaks and other livestock. Since 2003 there have been over 100 cases of snow leopards coming in conflict with yak herders.
Bhutan is also close to the Asian markets for wildlife animal parts used in unproven, traditional Chinese medicines (TCM). High prices for animal parts, including snow leopard pelts tempt people to become poachers. Snow leopard numbers have declined. With fewer tigers available for animal parts for TCM the snow leopard has become more of a target as some people believe taking medicines made from snow leopard parts are as effective as tiger medicines.
When I visited Bhutan I spoke to many local people who knew about snow leopards but who’d never seen one and didn’t know anyone who had. The current young King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, like his father, is very pro-environment. Projects were visible everywhere during my visit, like school kids doing community work cleaning up litter every Saturday morning in the main towns and a town in the hills being converted to solar energy because the endangered Black Cranes were killing themselves on the electricity lines each season as they came to feed.
How many snow leopards are left in Bhutan?
There are probably only about 100-200 snow leopards left in the wild in Bhutan. This is a very small number and may not be viable in the long term especially if these cats are not able to mingle with snow leopards in other areas to breed.
How can the snow leopards of Bhutan be saved?
In 2005, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) organized a regional Snow Leopard Action Strategy Workshop in Paro, Bhutan to develop an action plan for snow leopard conservation in this region and to form the Snow Leopard Working Group.
In 2008 WWF began a study of snow leopards in Jigme Dorje National Park to establish snow leopard numbers and the numbers of their prey species. The Snow Leopard Trust (Seattle, USA) was also involved in this work.
Recent (2011-2012) camera traps by the WWF have captured over 10,000 images of snow leopards in Wangchuck Centennial Park which adjoins the forests of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh which are also snow leopard habitat. The photos from these cameras show that snow leopards are still to be found in this park which connects Jigme Dorji National Park in the west of the country and Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary in the east.
WWF also trains anti-poaching squads, educates key officials and trains local staff in conservation of Bhutan wildlife and flora.
Other conservation organisations working in Bhutan include the Snow Leopard Conservancy who are partnering with the Bhutan Foundation to introduce community based education and conservation programs. During 2008-2010, Tshewang Wangchuk from the Bhutan Foundation conducted snow leopard survey across the country’s mountains, from western Haa to Mela Pass on the Tibetan border in Trashiyangtse dzongkhag as part of his PhD research. Read more about snow leopards in Bhutan here.