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The Snow Leopard — A few thoughts for the Guardian of the Highlands

Snow Leopard (Image Courtesy: Pixabay)

As humans, we are fascinated by the feline kingdom, from the unassuming housecat to the pompous lions of the Savannah. Their mature demeanour and grace of movement exudes a high degree of confidence that we aspire to imbibe in our everyday lives. As Mark Twain once mused, “Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat”.

Among its brethren, perhaps no one has a more mythical status than the Snow Leopard (Panthera Uncia), native to the rugged and snowy highlands of the Himalaya and Central Asia that constitute some of the harshest and remotest locations on the planet. Eking out its prey in surreal landscapes where mere survival is an accomplishment for the homo sapien, it epitomizes the natural and spiritual fabric of these higher climes, forming an integral part of the folklore of the handful of communities that inhabit these regions, who consider its rare sighting a divine experience.

Image Courtesy: Author

Let us look at the larger picture. Not only are ecosystems inhabited by the Snow Leopards some of the most unique on the planet, they are the progenitors of life as we know it — the glaciers act as water towers providing freshwater to billions downstream, their rocks are weathered into fertile soils through millions of years of geological processes, and their lofty peaks define the most important climatic event for more than a quarter of the world’s population that are the monsoons.

How does a Snow Leopard fit into the scheme of things? As one of the apex predators in the food chain, it maintains the balance of these fragile ecosystems, keeping populations of ungulates like Blue Himalayan Sheep and Ibex in control which prevent overgrazing and subsequently erosion or flash floods.

Current population estimates range from 4,000–7,000 individuals across 12 range countries, and intensive efforts are underway both at national and transboundary levels to narrow down these estimations to more accurate figures. Even though Snow Leopards are rare to spot, and their large territories can exceed even 100 sq kms, they still succumb to poaching for their pelt and other body parts. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists the Snow Leopard under Appendix I (i.e. species threatened with extinction), and its status was elevated to ‘requiring concerted action’ by the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) in 2002. It is also listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

Image Courtesy: Pixabay

Not only this, there are other factors threatening the survival of the cat. Climate change, especially rising temperatures, are shrinking their habitats and forcing them in proximity of human settlements in search for food, leading to a typical example of human-wildlife conflict where the cat is often killed to protect livestock. Overgrazing by livestock also leads to scarcity of fodder for wild grazing animals, thereby reducing the natural prey base and leading to the same problem as above. Then there are other issues like over extraction of natural resources which add fuel to the fire.

What do we do then? There are two broad areas to address — restoring the ecological balance by optimizing human dependency upon natural resources and curbing illegal trade in plants and wildlife.

The snow leopard remains one of the most unique wildlife species, its demure nature a sign of reverence to the elements of nature that rage at their fiercest in these remote regions. Unlike other big cats, its inability to roar has seemed to render it ‘silent’, with very few people aware of the immense threat the declining population of the animal and destruction of its habitat poses for people downstream. We need to spare a thought for this majestic species and do our bit to revive it in popular imagination, introducing our younger generations to the marvel of this species and the breath-taking beauty of its habitat.

About the Author

Parth Joshi is a Climate Reality Leader at The Climate Reality Project Foundation. He is also the National Livelihoods Specialist, SECURE Himalaya at UNDP. He is an enthusiastic expeditioner/ mountaineer, and a nature and wildlife photographer.

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