India is home to at least 718 snow leopards: survey

Climate change is an overarching threat to their population, expert says
By Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA
2024.02.09
Bangkok, Thailand
India is home to at least 718 snow leopards: survey A snow leopard caught in a camera trap photograph in Uttarakhand, a northwestern state of India close to Tibet border.
WWF

India’s inaugural survey on snow leopards has unveiled a population of 718 individuals within its borders, signaling hope for the species despite threats from poaching, climate change, infrastructure development and the degradation of their high-altitude habitats. 

The current global population of snow leopard is estimated to be between 4,731 and 7,465, making India’s count between 10 to 16%, Rishi Kumar Sharma, the head of snow leopard conservation at World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF)-India, told Radio Free Asia on Friday.

The survey, conducted between 2019 and 2023, covered 120,000 square kilometers (46,332 square miles) with more than 2,000 camera traps across the Himalayas from Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir, the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and the northeastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

The Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) report, part of the global Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards (PAWS) initiative, was released earlier this month.

“Until recent years, the snow leopard range in India was undefined due to a lack of extensive nationwide assessments for this vulnerable species,” said India’s environment  ministry.

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A snow leopard caught in a camera trap photograph in Sikkim, a northeastern state of India. (WWF)

They typically live in high, rugged mountain landscapes at altitudes over 3,000 meters (9,843 feet). They are found in a sparse distribution across 12 trans-Himalayan-Siberian countries, from southern Russia to the Tibetan plateau, as well as Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal.

In Ladakh, the most significant proof of snow leopard existence was documented by the India survey, as camera traps captured images of 126 distinct individuals, leading to an estimated population of around 477.

Ladakh is in the northwestern part of India and shares a border with Tibet and Xinjiang, which also host snow leopards. However, the population in China has not been scientifically assessed.

“Limited radio-collaring studies clearly indicate transboundary movement and, in many cases, even home ranges that span two-country boundaries,” Sharma said.

According to the 2014 Snow Leopard Survival Strategy report, China has 60% of the big cat’s global population in about 1.1 million square kilometers (424,712 square miles). 

Sharma said WWF-China and its partners have begun “an ambitious exercise to estimate the snow leopard population in China.”

“The studies so far indicate that snow leopards and their habitats are being protected well in China,” he added.

Climate change risk

Snow leopards are classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, where they have been listed since 1988. Their estimated and projected decline is at least 10% by 2040.

Spanning 70% of India’s potential habitats for snow leopards, the survey aimed to deliver a precise count of these elusive wildcats for the first time, focusing on securing their future by charting their territories and addressing the challenges they encounter.

“The findings not only contribute significantly to our understanding of snow leopard ecology but also emphasize the ecological importance of the high-altitude environments they inhabit,” the report added.

Experts say snow leopards are at risk due to climate change, habitat fragmentation, and retaliatory killings stemming from human-wildlife conflicts. Additionally, they fall victim to poaching, as humans illegally trade their fur and body parts.

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A snow leopard caught in a camera trap photograph in Sikkim, a northeastern state of India. (WWF)

In Nepal, conservationists have found common leopards at higher altitudes, raising fears of interaction or conflict between them and snow leopards.

Sharma said such overlapping between snow leopards, common leopards, and even tigers is common in the region. 

“These interactions are just coming to the fore now with more expeditions, scientific surveys, and data. Climate change, however, might exacerbate these interactions and lead to competition for resources between the cats,” he said.

“Climate change is an overarching threat to snow leopards and their habitats. It exacerbates and magnifies every other threat affecting the people and their livelihoods, ecosystems, and species,” Sharma said.

“Studies so far indicate multiple and complex pathways in which climate change will impact snow leopards and their habitats,” Sharma noted, citing research that suggests only “about 35% of snow leopard habitat will remain as climate refugia for them by 2070 if the current rates of emissions continue.”

“The visible/emerging impacts include increasing frequency of extreme weather events, degradation and browning of alpine meadows, droughts and rapid melting of glaciers,” he added.

Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn.

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