Of all the wild cats around the world, the snow leopard remains particularly enigmatic.

High up in the snowy heights of Central Asia and the Himalayas roams this gentle feline, which is rightfully called the “mountain ghost". This is hostile terrain—far from human habitat—where only the toughest survive. Spotting a snow leopard here is a game of chance for those who’ve braved the elements in order to study these shy creatures.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently moved the snow leopard’s status from “endangered" to “vulnerable" on its Red List. The modification was based on field studies and estimates over the years.

According to the IUCN, a species whose numbers are fewer than 2,500, and declining at a certain percentage over a period of time, falls under the “critically endangered" criterion. Those between 2,500 and 10,000 are classified “vulnerable".

But anyone who’s tried locating a snow leopard on the white slopes of the high mountains will tell you how difficult a task it is to just spot one, let alone estimate their population.

“I had mixed feelings about this status change," says Tsewang Namgail, director at Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust (SLC-IT), over email from Leh. “Although it is apparent that the current global snow leopard population exceeds the ‘2,500 mature individuals’ (that the IUCN has set for listing the species on the endangered list), I don’t know what methods the assessing team employed."

To get an idea of the mammoth task at hand, SLC-IT’s work since 2000 is a good place to start. The small-yet-dedicated team works closely with New York-based Panthera, an organization devoted to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems. SLC-IT recently found support in the Australian Himalayan Foundation, American India Foundation, Alliance for Religion and Conservation and the Britten Foundation.

Its area of operation is a 35,000 sq. km zone in the barren mountains of Ladakh and Zanskar in Jammu and Kashmir. It encompasses a small part of the snow leopard’s terrain that extends to similar remote habitats in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (around 100,000 sq. km in all), in addition to around 11 other countries (around 1.8 million sq. km).

The nature of Trans-Himalayan territory makes studying these cats an exercise in patience, while toiling in unforgiving weather.

Studying the snow leopard is an exercise in patience.
Studying the snow leopard is an exercise in patience.

“We do not know much about the population trend, largely because there is no benchmark data. The estimate in almost all countries is based on educated guesses. It is no different for India, where less than 5% of its range has been surveyed," Namgail says.

For instance, India has the third-largest population of the species, estimated to be between 500 and 700. Camera trapping surveys conducted over the last 10 years by SLC-IT, in collaboration with the wildlife department, have managed to reveal 49 snow leopards in an area of about 5,000 sq. km.

Similarly, in the Spiti valley of Himachal, 24 animals were recorded in an area of 4,752 sq. km. Current practices extrapolate figures and trends from such a cross-section over a large area in order to arrive at an overall estimate.

According to the Snow Leopard Trust, a Seattle-based organization, the global population estimate ranges anywhere from 3,920 to 6,390 cats. IUCN estimates it to be something over 2,500 (but fewer than 10,000), thus leading to the recent change in status. However, just the complex nature of the counting exercise undermines any claim to anything like a good guess at worldwide numbers.

“The main challenge one faces while conducting snow leopard surveys is its elusive nature and the inaccessibility of its habitat," Namgail says. “Most of the surveys done in the past to determine its numbers relied on signs. There are inherent problems in this method. And it is often difficult to relate it to the actual numbers."

Due to their elusive nature, it is difficult to conduct surveys on snow leopards.
Due to their elusive nature, it is difficult to conduct surveys on snow leopards.

Most signs of snow leopard activity, especially pug marks, are ephemeral. Depending on the condition of the underlying snow substrate, these marks can vanish rapidly.

More recently, this error-prone dependence on pug marks has been alleviated somewhat with the help of camera trapping (a technique where cameras are set up in areas that the animals in question are believed to frequent). However, this involves high costs and constant monitoring, especially given the extreme temperatures that these devices are mounted in.

More fundamental is the difficulty in accessing the snow leopard’s habitats, which range between 3,000m and 4,500m in altitude, climbing to 5,500m in the summer when the snow recedes. In some cases, when resources permit, cats have been marked with GPS collars. But these cases remain extremely rare.

“Traditionally, researchers used radio collars to track them. GPS can give a better estimate about the home range sizes, which in turn can feed into other methods to give better population estimates," Namgail says.

Another basis of estimating their numbers is to understand their prey base, comprising herbivorous ungulates, whose population of 0.25 individuals per square kilometre in Ladakh is considered to be healthy.

Threats to the snow leopard abound. There are old challenges such as poaching and mining, in addition to newer ones such as global warming. Studies have shown that the snow leopard is moving higher up the slopes due to climate change, in addition to suffering a reduced habitat due to an upward shift in the treeline.

One reason for their frequent spotting in the areas around Leh these days is the goodwill they’ve earned from local communities that live in the wilderness, and who have learned to coexist with them.

In the past, there have been well-documented accounts of retaliatory attacks by villagers when their livestock has been killed by a predator. However, over the last few years, SLC-IT has been working with these communities to change their attitude. It first addressed the core problem of livestock loss by introducing a community-based insurance scheme.

Also, as the snow leopard sightings increased, it led to wildlife enthusiasts popping up at these villages every now and then. This has seeded a local tourism industry that generates money for entire villages. Some locals have taken to jobs as spotters, guides, cooks and porters to earn a healthy income on the side.

“We have areas in Ladakh such as Rumbak and Ulley, where retaliatory killings have completely stopped. The down-listing could actually serve as a tribute to these communities that are ardently supporting the conservation efforts. While they used to kill snow leopard cubs back in the day, today they have an incentive to keep them alive," he says.

Namgail believes that conservation goals cannot be achieved until local communities realize they are the most important stakeholders, and are allowed to manage their own affairs with minimal interference from outside. Endangered or otherwise, the need of the hour is for these efforts to continue.

“A plausible repercussion of the down-listing is reduced support from sources that mostly fund endangered species. But generally, the snow leopard has captured the imagination of nature lovers across the planet. Therefore, ardent lovers of the cat might beef up their support to grassroots organizations and local communities, whose conservation efforts have paid off, at least locally," he says.

For the snow leopard, one battle may be over, but the war for survival goes on. At least some of the humans are helping.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer who dreams of the mountains and lives for long road journeys.

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