The latest research (from 2003) found between 200 and 600 snow leopards in India in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Sikkim and Jammu and Kashmir. The state of Jammu and Kashmir includes Ladakh, believed to be one of the prime snow leopard areas in the Indian Himalaya.
There are different estimates from other organisations and WWF India, says the number is closer to 100 to 200 cats.
Ladakh, northern India
Ladakh was the place I went on the Earthwatch Snow Leopard Project in the late 1990’s. It’s a beautiful place with spectacular high valleys, the soaring Himalayas in the background and wild running rivers. The capital Leh, is at almost 4000m altitude so you have to take it slowly the first few days after you fly in. And that’s hard to do, there’s so much to see in the way of ancient monasteries, vibrant villages and meeting the local people.
Ladakh is very different to the rest of India. With its extreme winter climate, high altitudes and Buddhist culture it’s easy to think you’re in Tibet rather than India.
The area now called Hemis National Park has been snow leopard range for a long time but like all these regions it’s been subject to population increases, deforestation and a decline in the prey species of snow leopards. During my project we spent hours each day searching for evidence of the cats’ presence and counting prey species like marmots and argali. We did eventually find evidence of snow leopard one day. There before us on a high path were scats and pug marks in the dust. They were near a rock outcrop, the sort of place the snow leopard loves to rub its chin, spray and leave scratch marks to communicate with any other cat that may be around.
We never did see a snow leopard though. I guess we didn’t really expect to, it was wonderful to know that they were still there. At the time the villagers we interviewed were generally hostile (understandably) to the animal and the tourists were oblivious that an animal called the snow leopard even existed.
Today much of that has changed, largely dues to the efforts of the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), which has been working here for many years. To help the herder communities with extra income and raise living standards, the SLC has helped build Himalayan homestay projects in villages. Local people host tourists, many of them foreign nationals, in Ladakhi homes which gives them a chance to enjoy traditional hospitality, food and culture. The SLC also gives technical and financial help to tourism activities if no snow leopard or cubs are killed by the villagers.
Making the livestock pens predator proof has also meant less losses of domestic stock to snow leopards and less retaliation killings. All these programs are helping people and snow leopards live side by side.
Read an interview with Rodney Jackson, founder of the Snow Leopard Conservancy.
“Vanishing tracks – four years among the snow leopards of Nepal” by Darla Hillard is about Rodney Jackson’s early work capturing and radio collaring snow leopards in Nepal. Purchase the book from the Snow Leopard Conservancy.
Project Snow Leopard
Indian government and NGO conservation agencies have launched a ‘Project Snow Leopard’ to help protect the high altitudes of India’s Himalayas with its highly endangered populations of species such as snow leopard, black-necked crane, bears, and endangered wild sheep and goats.
Until the mid 2000’s from the viewpoint of wildlife conservation, the high altitudes have remained relatively neglected. According to the National Conservation Foundation of India (NCF) “many of India’s population including policy makers are aware of the precarious conservation status of the tiger and the Asian elephant, but few are aware of even the existence of species such as snow leopard in India.”
India’s high altitude wildlife today faces a variety of threats. The snow leopard, wolf, and other carnivores are widely persecuted in retaliation against livestock depredation. Many mountain wild sheep and goats, important prey for snow leopards, are being depleted and lost due to competition with livestock, as well as hunting for meat. Other threats also exist, including migrating livestock that pose risks of spreading exotic diseases to wildlife and unplanned tourism.
The existing high altitude protected areas in India are also inadequately managed according to the NCF. There is a serious lack of resources, manpower, and training and the protected areas have received little conservation attention. Special attention needs to be focused on the relationship between the local populations and the wildlife. Unlike many western countries, the National Park areas are still home for many villagers and herders.
The mission of Project Snow Leopard is to “safeguard India’s unique natural heritage of high altitude wildlife populations and their habitats by promoting conservation through participatory policies and actions in important landscapes in the Himalayan high altitudes in the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.”
Snow Leopard Trust UK Program
The SLT UK supports more than 100 families in Spiti and Ladakh so they can participate in the Livestock Insurance Program. Funds help herders take out insurance on their yaks, horses, cattle and other valuable livestock so they are compensated if snow leopards attack their animals. In the past herders would have killed the snow leopard in retaliation or to make sure more other livestock wasn’t at risk.
But now with the Livestock Insurance Program, herder families are financially compensated for insured animals lost to snow leopard attacks. Also an annual monetary reward is given to the herder who loses the fewest animals to predation. The award encourages herders to take more care and take pride in decreased losses and in snow leopard conservation. Herders build better snow leopard proof corrals and take turns watching their entire village’s livestock herds. A big incentive is that no one wants to be responsible for losing someone elses animal.
Herders sign a conservation contract with the Trust agreeing not to kill snow leopards or their prey species in return for being in the program. This is a great example of helping local communities co-exist with endangered wildlife while not disadvantaging them economically. Read more about snow leopards in India here.