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The silent sentinels of mountain landscape

The food chain snow leopards manage helps maintain a complex network of wetlands & meadows

The silent sentinels of mountain landscape

Parth Joshi

It was a cloudy morning as we negotiated the moraines and scree leading up to Phanghi Galu, a 4,500-metre pass in the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh connecting the remote Jiva Nal and Parvati valleys. As we walked amidst the magnificent scenery in pin-drop silence, a rockfall on a distant slope broke the reverie, and we spotted a group of Ibex at the top of a slope, scampering away out of sight.

As we stood a bit perplexed, being quite far away to be the instigators of this panic among the ungulates, one of the porters surmised casually, “I saw a long tail, must have been a snow leopard.” Such are the sightings of this enigmatic species — hardly a fleeting glimpse, earning it the moniker ‘the ghost of the mountains’. Most of the times, one has to contend with subtle signs of its presence, a pugmark here or there, the carcass of a devoured prey, or some scat.

The snow leopard is one of the seven big cat species found globally, and perhaps one of the most fascinating. Inhabiting high-altitude mountain landscapes in 12 countries across Central and South Asia, they are highly specialised predators that can survive in extremely cold temperatures and rugged terrain. Their total population is estimated to be between 4,000-7,000, of which around 700 are found in India across Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

By preying on herbivores like sheep and goats, they prevent them from overgrazing, which leaves enough food for smaller animals, and also maintains ecosystem factors like water retention capacity and nutrition of the soil, thereby ensuring a healthy ecosystem for all. The food chain they manage helps maintain a complex network of wetlands and meadows that provide a buffer zone between glaciers and rivers, absorbing excess water during wet seasons, which prevents floods and also provides water during dry seasons, while allowing plant life to flourish.

In India, snow leopard habitats are estimated to provide ecosystem services worth US $4 billion annually, which include fresh water, minerals, and medicinal and aromatic plants. The Himalayas are often referred to as the ‘Third Pole’, holding the third highest amount of freshwater after the polar region. It is no understatement to say that the snow leopards are the guardians of these water sources.

Today, the snow leopard is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), just one step away from becoming ‘endangered’. There are multiple reasons for this. Due to climate change, their natural habitat is shrinking as global temperatures increase. Uncontrolled grazing in wild areas by domestic livestock leaves less food for wild herbivores, leading to a decline in their population and consequently, less prey for snow leopards. This brings them to human settlements in search of livestock as prey, resulting in retaliatory killings by villagers. Wild sheep and goat are also susceptible to poaching, another reason for a decline in snow leopard populations.

Protecting snow leopards requires protecting their habitat, where humans have peacefully co-existed with them for centuries, many of them nomadic and pastoral settlements. These communities are the last bastions of unique traditional knowledge and cultural systems, finding ingenious ways to survive the harsh conditions. Such communities, and their way of living in harmony with nature, need as much protection as the snow leopards themselves.

One of the major challenges is tracking the movement of snow leopards and the knowledge of local communities becomes extremely useful. In Uttarakhand, the government has involved youth from villages to assist in conducting snow leopard population census. In Sikkim, community volunteers frequently patrol forests to discourage poaching.

Providing alternative livelihoods to communities can reduce their dependency on snow leopard habitats for natural resources. In Ladakh, cottage industries like community-based tourism, handlooms and food processing are providing a stable source of income for villagers. This reduces the need for them to increase the size of their livestock and allows for regeneration of pasturelands for wild herbivores.

Infra-red alarm sensors are reducing instances of snow leopards wandering into human settlements, while frugal innovation like wire meshes to cover corrals or sheep pens is reducing damage to livestock if they enter villages.

It is bright and sunny in Tarchit, a village in Rong valley in Ladakh, which is being developed as a winter tourism destination for people to come and spot snow leopards when they descend to lower altitudes during the colder months. For villagers in Tarchit and thousands of people living in the high-altitude Himalayas, the snow leopard is a beacon of hope for a sustainable future.

— The writer is a climate expert working with the United Nations

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