First snow leopard census set to take off

India is set to begin an exercise to keep tabs on the "ghosts of the mountains" with the maiden census for snow leopards, the most elusive carnivore found in the Himalayas. The Environment Ministry has released a protocol for this exercise.

An icon of the Asian high mountains, the snow leopard inhabits the higher Himalayan and trans-Himalayan landscape at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,400 metres, spanning over an area of 100,000 sq km in Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

India contributes to about 5% of the global snow leopard range spread over 11 other countries — Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The first Indian snow leopard census will be conducted following the enumeration protocol, jointly prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru.

"The protocol will help the snow leopard range states to estimate distribution and population of the big cats and prey in a uniform manner to arrive at a national estimate for the first time," Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said here releasing the document at a conference of the 12 snow leopard states.

In 2016, an international team of experts estimated that the global population of snow leopards varies between 4,000 and 8,000 in the 12 countries. A year later, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downgraded its conservation status from 'endangered' to 'vulnerable' on the assumption that there are enough number of these animals in the wild.

The population estimates, however, are not robust and are based mainly on expert knowledge and approximations due to extremely rugged terrain, remoteness of the snow leopard habitats and lack of monitoring. For instance, recent surveys show that they do not occur in 25% of the area that was thought to be their range in Himachal Pradesh.

The Indian survey will extensively use camera traps, artificial intelligence, drones and genetic tools to find out the numbers of not only the snow leopard, but also its prey base like ungulate prey base like markhor, argali, urial, ibex, blue sheep (bharal), Tibetan wild ass, wild yak, Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle and possibly Hangul or Kashmir red deer, musk deer, and Himalayan tahr.

"It is widely accepted that the availability of the wild ungulates determines the population of the large carnivores and impacts livestock depredation. Reduced wild ungulate populations have been shown to increase livestock hunting by snow leopards in these landscapes which leads to retaliatory killing of large carnivores and has potential to undermine the conservation initiatives," says the protocol document.

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