Snow leopard conflict cases rise in Ladakh

Out of the nine snow leopards found in conflict with habitation, six had to be caught and moved to the department’s rescue centre in Leh for a period of 15 days to a month.
Out of the nine conflicts with habitation, six had to be caught and moved to a rescue centre in Leh.(Md. Sajid Sultan)
Out of the nine conflicts with habitation, six had to be caught and moved to a rescue centre in Leh.(Md. Sajid Sultan)
Updated on May 26, 2020 10:05 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi

There have been around nine snow leopard conflict cases reported in Ladakh during the past two months of national lockdown where the elusive carnivores have killed or attacked livestock in village corrals, according to the wildlife protection department of Jammu and Kashmir.

Out of the nine snow leopards found in conflict with habitation, six had to be caught and moved to the department’s rescue centre in Leh for a period of 15 days to a month. One of them continues to be at the rescue centre and will be released in the wild in a fortnight or so, according to Md Sajid Sultan, regional wildlife warden, Ladakh.

“Snow leopards and Himalayan brown bears have been seen to be moving about more freely closer to habitation compared to the past two years. There have been around nine conflict cases involving snow leopards in less than two months which may be linked to less movement of humans during lockdown. There were two conflict cases last year,” he said, adding that the Himalayan brown bears have been spotted on highways and villages where they haven’t been seen in decades.

The six snow leopards that were involved in conflicts and killing of livestock, including sheep and Pashmina goats, from villages at lower altitudes had to be confined to a rescue centre either because they had injuries, issues with their teeth, a weak pelvic girdle or worms.

“This is also a lean season for them. They do not find enough prey in high altitudes and so tend to come down. February to March is the mating season and then they have the birthing season in May to July. They are tired and look for food during this time. Higher cases of conflict are also related to that,” added Sultan who has three snow leopards at the rescue centre presently, two caught before lockdown who may not be released in their lifetimes as they have serious injuries.

Those released back to the wild are either radio collared or GPS tagged with a microchip to track their behaviour or movement.

But those studying snow leopards say it’s not a good idea to capture them and confine them even for a few weeks following a livestock raid.

“Livestock killing by snow leopards is not just common in India but in all range countries. I am not sure it’s the wisest thing to capture them. Communities should be helped to find better ways to protect livestock. But those on the frontline are dealing with a tough situation because herders are badly impacted if a large share of their livestock is raided,” said Ajay Bijoor, assistant director, conservation, high altitudes at Nature Conservation Foundation.

“Lockdown may not have an impact on the livestock raiding behaviour of snow leopards. Lockdown and these raids could be coincidental. Snow leopards do periodically kill free grazing livestock. So, if herders haven’t been taking livestock out for grazing post lockdown, a particular snow leopard who is partially dependent on livestock, can get into a village in search of food, enter a corral and attack livestock,” said Anish Andheria, president - Wildlife Conservation Trust. “Two factors, hunger and familiarity can encourage a snow leopard to raid corrals. Once inside a corral, the snow leopard, in excitement, usually attacks and/or kill multiple animals. If the rescued snow leopard is not injured then it is best to release it immediately or in a day, after monitoring its conditions. If found with injuries, it can be treated at a rehabilitation centre, until it is fit for release, and then released in its territory, that is a kilometer or two from the village where it was found,” he added.

Experts cautioned against capturing and confining snow leopards becoming the norm for conflict cases, giving them space to leave is more advisable as tranquilising them could pose a risk to their lives.

A study led by Grimsö Wildlife Research Station; Snow Leopard Trust; Panthera in 2016 had found that 40% of the protected areas that included snow leopard habitat were too small to host even one breeding pair of cats. This is because the cats moved around quite a bit and their ranges varied in size.

According to the Snow Leopard Trust, if snow leopards are captured and sent into captivity each time livestock is attacked, there may be a gradual reduction in snow leopard numbers in the wild in a short period of time. Capturing snow leopards that have killed livestock can also lead to local communities themselves starting to routinely capture them. Instead, the community can be engaged to both conserve the snow leopards and protect livestock.

In India, snow leopards inhabit the higher Himalayan and Trans Himalayan landscape in an altitudinal range between approximately 3,000 m to 5,400 m above mean sea level in five states--Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. This area contributes to only 5% of the global snow leopard range. There are around 500 snow leopards in India according to Wildlife Fund for Nature but no census has been conducted yet.

The environment ministry has asked Wildlife Institute of India to study the impact of lockdown on wildlife in different parts of the country. “The wildlife department is supposed to minimise conflict as much as possible. If that is not possible the protocol is to capture them, treat them, keep them in rescue centres for a brief period and then release them. Snow Leopard conflicts are more common in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh compared to Sikkim and Uttarakhand. Lots of animal sighting are happening now. Its natural because of less human movement and vehicular traffic. We have asked Wildlife Institute of India to study these findings,” said Soumitra Dasgupta, additional director general wildlife at environment ministry.

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