The elusive and rarely sighted snow leopard is now being frequently spotted in snow-bound Spiti valley of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh (HP). What will delight wildlife lovers even more are the instances of the endangered cat to be seen in pairs.
With the cases of snow leopard sightings increasing Spiti is fast emerging as important destination for tourists, both domestic and foreign. With the visits of tourists increasing giving boost to the local economy, residents of the area have also started realizing the importance of the live cat than the dead one. Now they are not only giving protection to the ‘ghost of mountains’ but have also learnt to live with the master of camouflage.
The success rate of snow leopard sightings in Spiti is over 50 per cent which is claimed to be the highest in the world. Local wildlife range officer Devender Singh Chauhan says, “In the last few days, we spotted two pairs of this cat in Spiti. This is welcome sign suggesting that the species is thriving here.” According to the officer other wild species like, Red fox, Himalayan tahr, woolly hare, Himalayan blue sheep and many other species are also thriving in the area.
Found in the mountainous regions of Central and South Asia, the species is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The global population of the species is estimated at around 6,000 individuals with a predicted decline of 10 per cent in the next 23 years.
Reasons for snow leopard population decline
The reasons responsible for the decline of Snow leopards are many, but some of the most important and also the most common are poaching, habitat destruction, prey depletion and climate change. In the year 2016, the global population of this wild cat was estimated from 3,920 to 6,390.
Poaching is usually done for illegal trade which is the biggest threat to the survival of wild species. According to estimates between 2008 to 2016 on an average one snow leopard was being killed every day and the average yearly deaths due to poaching were 220 to 250. These cats are found in snow clad mountains, but the threat of global warming with changing climate has threatened their existence.
Increased sightings in Spiti and elsewhere
Recent sighting was not an isolated case. Last year there was report saying that about 30 snow leopards inhabit in and around Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary in Spiti. With the sightings of number of cubs now people have started believing that the cat has found a safe haven in Spiti. Wildlife officials are also hopeful that they will be able to track more snow leopards in future.
Officials believe this year’s prolonged and heavy snowfall on the higher reaches has compelled the cats to come down in search of food, as most of the species on which the leopard preys upon, descends to the lower hills to escape cold. This is perhaps the reason why snow leopard sightings have increased. Snow leopards primarily hunt wild sheep and goats, but Blue sheep (locally known as bharal) is its main prey.
Last year, North India received quite less snowfall, but this winter it was very good. The valley received first snow in the month of October. Other reasons include increasing awareness, effective implementation of conservation policy and above all the support of the local people.
Sighting along Sutlej River
Researchers have also discovered these cats along the Sutlej River in Kinnaur district of HP. It was captured in footages from the remote areas of Lippa Asrang Wildlife Sanctuary for the first time, indicating plenty of prey.
The sanctuary is located at a height of around 4,000 metres while snow leopards are usually found between 9,800 and 17,000 feet in high and rugged terrain.
A team of researchers from the state forest department had installed cameras at eight sites in the sanctuary after inputs from shepherds and villagers.
Sushil Kapta, conservator, south zone wildlife wing, said the discovery puts spotlight on ascertaining newer areas of habitation by the big cats. “It was only last year that the snow leopard’s count improved from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ in terms of conservation status,” he added.
In the state, the habitat of snow leopards range from Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary in Lahaul Spiti to Pangi in Chamba district. They have also been spotted in Great Himalayan National park, Kullu.
Wildlife wing of the forest department has been running a snow leopard project in collaboration with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, to conserve snow leopards in the valley.
It now intends to undertake a survey in high altitude areas to access the population of the animal in the state.
Opening doors to the world’s best big cat adventures
With the sightings increasing every season more and more tourists, both domestic and foreign, have started coming to Spiti to see the majestic but highly elusive “ghost of mountains” in its natural habitat.
Protecting the environment and wildlife has proven to be a blessing for the villagers as the economy is growing in the valley. It is being reported that tourists are paying extra money to locals to take them to the spots where the chances of seeing this beautiful cat are high.
What lies ahead for the big cats?
The census of these cats is due in 2021, after that it will be known how many of these cats are there in India. Meanwhile, the forest officials are on guard, protecting the endangered species in the country. Officials claim that the conservation policies, stricter conviction and awareness among people has discouraged poaching in the region.