In October last year, a camera trap photographed a snow leopard in Thembang, a village in western Arunachal Pradesh. The camera trap was part of a statewide survey by the World Wide Fund for Nature, a.k.a. WWF, India. It provided the first photographic evidence of the presence of snow leopards in the state. In turn, this spotlighted the survey’s importance. Without it, we’d have continued to go with anecdotal evidence.
This is surprising. Arunachal Pradesh overlaps a part of the Eastern Himalayan region, with a lot of land over 3,000 m above sea level. This makes it a natural home for the snow leopard. Photographic proof shouldn’t have taken so long.
“Arunachal has long been recognised as a potential snow leopard habitat, especially the alpine areas above about 4,000 m,” Yash Veer Bhatnagar, director of the Snow Leopard Trust’s India programme and a senior scientist at the National Conservation Foundation, told The Wire. “However, apart from Tawang, there have been no confirmed reports from other parts. I believe even the early British explorers and surveyors didn’t report” seeing any snow leopards.
In India, snow leopards are distributed in the higher areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. In Asia, this species is found mostly in the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. They are severely threatened, classified as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN Red List.
“Arunachal Pradesh defines the easternmost distribution of snow leopards in India and is globally important for the conservation” of the species, according to Rishi Kumar Sharma, senior coordinator at WWF India. “But there have been no systematic studies to examine the status of snow leopards, their wild ungulate prey species and the nature and extent of threats that they face.”
Sharma and his colleagues have been working in the Eastern Himalayan region as part of the first phase of their conservation programme. They completed a statewide survey of Arunachal last year and are currently analysing the data.
For one, they’ve found that snow leopard populations are threatened when wild ungulates they eat are trapped by humans, when they fall into traps humans have set for their prey, and by free-ranging dogs.
Large linear infrastructure projects have also intruded in what used to be an undisturbed habitat in remote parts of Arunachal.
On December 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Bogibeel Bridge, the country’s longest railroad, between Assam and Arunachal. Many other transportation and eco-tourism projects are in the pipeline.
Of course India’s Northeast is strategically important, and its relatively poorer infrastructure merits the promotion of such projects. However, as Bhatnagar said, the Government of India doesn’t seem to be registering the resulting ecological impact. It should be.
The WWF survey assumes additional importance in this context. “While developing infrastructure projects, we usually have access to topographic maps and taluk-level administrative information. But there’s no [detailed] information about the presence of key wildlife species in the region.”
The survey fills this gap and allows state officials to plan projects without disturbing biodiversity hotspots. At least, it is one less excuse.
Better access could mean better connectivity for enforcement officers as well. “When I visited the state last year,” Bhatnagar said, “I found that many forest officers couldn’t visit” many parts of protected areas “due to poor road networks.”
And if protected areas are not well-collected, it’s alarming that over 90% of snow leopard habitat in the whole country falls outside such areas, where connectivity is likely to be poorer.
Community-conserved areas like Thembang make up most of this 90%. Here, conservation depends a lot on forest officials, the local panchayat and the people of the region working together.
The trans-Himalayan region illustrates how.
“Unlike other terrestrial ecosystems in India, the trans-Himalaya is unique because wildlife occurs throughout” this region, “and isn’t restricted to protected areas,” Sharma said. So the snow leopards here can’t get by on the exalted legal status of protected areas alone.
Everyone needs to work with the local communities, the stewards of the region, to ensure the snow leopard won’t be harmed wherever it chooses to go. Sharma explained that the knowledge these communities – “especially the livestock herders” – should be included in any survey of the area. Community members are consulted on new conservation plans and interventions.
Many of these communities also consider the hunting and killing of big cats to be taboo.
But it can’t be an exercise in taking alone. There also needs to be a lot of giving.
These are “unique ecosystems that support nomadic and agro-pastoral communities while also nurturing unique high-altitude wildlife,” according to Sharma. Such proximity leads to conflict. For example, snow leopards have been known to kill livestock, leaving its owners facing lost revenue given the demand for products like wool.
In response, the WWF is working with local communities so they can benefit from conservation programmes as much as the snow leopards will.
It is helping install predator-proof livestock pens and introduce wildlife-friendly livestock production techniques like rotational grazing. Zero-waste initiatives have been mooted to reduce habitat degradation. The people no longer kill the animals in retaliation.
The areas without human presence are equally important. The Himalayan region is home to numerous endemic species that are endangered, not least because of climate change. And here the circle comes full.
Around the world, “over 330 million people live within 10 km of rivers originating in snow leopard habitat, and are directly affected by the water flowing down from these mountains,” Sharma said. Forested mountain slopes form catchment areas and also channel the flow of water to foothills and lowland plains.
So it’s in everyone’s best interest to conserve these landscapes and the plants and animals that live there.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.