Rise in number of snow leopards in Himachal brings cheer to wildlife enthusiasts

Recent sightings of the wild cat show state’s efforts to protect the endangered feline have begun to yield results.
A snow leopard spotted in a high-altitude area of Lahaul and Spiti district. The habitat of the state animal of Himachal Pradesh spans from Kibber wildlife sanctuary in Lahaul and Spiti to Kugti sanctuary in Chamba. Snow leopards are found at altitudes between 9,800 ft and 17,000 ft in rugged terrain.(HT FILE)
A snow leopard spotted in a high-altitude area of Lahaul and Spiti district. The habitat of the state animal of Himachal Pradesh spans from Kibber wildlife sanctuary in Lahaul and Spiti to Kugti sanctuary in Chamba. Snow leopards are found at altitudes between 9,800 ft and 17,000 ft in rugged terrain.(HT FILE)
Updated on Feb 27, 2020 06:32 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Shimla | By, Shimla

The Grey Ghost of Spiti, as the endangered snow leopard is often called, may still be one of the most mysterious cats but may not be as elusive thanks to the efforts of the state forest department and conservationists.

The recent sightings of Himachal Pradesh’s state animal in the frozen white expanse of Spiti valley have come as a delight for wildlife enthusiasts as the population of the feline inhabiting the treacherous terrain is expected to have seen a rise. A recent video showed a snow leopard in front of an SUV in Hikkim village, while another resident recorded the felines atop a mountain in Kibber. Both videos were widely shared on social media.

Though the exact number of snow leopards is difficult to ascertain given their shy nature, but the wildlife wing of the forest department pegs the population at more than 100. The wildlife wing and the Nature Conservation Foundation of India, Mysore, surveyed seven places, including Miyar, Thandi, Chandra and Bagha in upper Spiti region in Lahaul and Spiti district. The team spotted 49 leopards in all.

“We followed the landscape adoption approach under which we take care of snow leopards, their prey base and the livelihood of people. The surveys have been encouraging,” says principal chief conservator wildlife Savita, adding that the final survey will be completed by March-end.

The department conducted an estimate of snow leopard count in 2016 but it was not done in a scientific manner. At that time, it had put the number at 67. Earlier, it had estimated 20 leopards across the state that set alarm bells ringing.

“The frequent sighting of leopards is a good sign. It shows that they live in a healthy environment,” says Sanjay Kumar Dhiman, a wildlife official who has authored Cats of Himalayas.

HOME AND HABITAT

In Himachal Pradesh, the snow leopard’s habitat ranges from Kibber wildlife sanctuary in Lahaul and Spiti to Pangi in Chamba district. The cats are usually found in the rugged terrain at altitudes between 9,800 feet and 17,000 feet.

Snow leopards have been sighted in Lippa Asrang in the upper reaches of Kinnaur and the Great Himalayan National Park.

The Helan Shan blue sheep, also known as bharals, comprise the main prey for snow leopards. But the growing population of stray dogs in Kaza close to Kibber, the main habitat of the leopard, has emerged as a threat for the feline.

Snow leopards prefer to inhabit steep cliff areas, rocky outcrops and ravines. Such habitats provide them with the camouflage they need to ambush unsuspecting prey. They stalk their prey and usually spring from a distance of 20ft to 50ft. Their long and powerful hind limbs help them to leap up to 30 ft, which is six times their body length.

SOURCE OF INCOME

The snow leopards are emerging as a source of livelihood for local residents of the cold desert. Thirty youngsters of Spiti valley have been trained by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering in Manali. They earn from 1,000 to 1,500 from each tourist group for guiding them on leopard sighting trips.

“During winter, more wildlife enthusiasts visit Spiti to spot snow leopards. These excursions are a good source of income for us,” says Chhering Tashi, a graduate from Kibber village located 14,200 ft above sea level. Tashi has studied the habitat of snow leopards in the region for three years.

KEEPING TRACK

  • In 2006, the forest department initiated the project to conserve the habitat of snow leopards in Spiti valley
  • The wildlife wing is running the project along with the Nature Conservation Foundation of India, Mysore
  • The Himachal Pradesh government has set up the Himalayan Snow Leopards Research Centre
  • Himachal is the first state to have undertaken a project to conserve snow leopards
  • More than 30 trap cameras have been installed in the region to keep track of snow leopards
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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Gaurav Bisht heads Hindustan Times’ Himachal bureau. He covers politics in the hill state and other issues concerning the masses.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022