New Delhi: As many as 12 range countries have come together on International Snow Leopard Day to begin a massive exercise to get the global count the high-altitude predator and strive to double its already existing population.

Addressing the inaugural session of the fourth steering committee meeting of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) programme, here on Wednesday, Union Minister for Environmental, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar said that a national protocol on Snow leopard population assessment in India has been finalized.

"Once we get a total count of the snow leopards, each of the countries will then strive to double the population of this endangered wild animal, which is immensely critical for our ecosystem," he said, while launching the national protocol to enumerate snow leopards in India.

As many as 12 range countries, including China, Russia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Krgyzstan, Nepal, Bhutan, Uzbekista and Kazakhstan are participating in the two-day steering committee meeting being organized to assess the efforts being made to conserve the animal’s habitat and curb poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

The Snow Leopard is fighting a battle of survival with only 7,500 of them estimated to have been left in the mountain ranges of Central Asia and South Asia, where they are facing rising pressure due to habitat loss. Known to be among the top predators in the Himalayan ecosystem, the animal is listed among the ‘vulnerable species’ in the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

As per the Snow Leopard Programme of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, India is perhaps home to at least 700 snow leopards in the Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Sikki, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. India is believed to have the third highest population of snow leopards, after China and Mongolia, however, an exact count is not yet available.

Referring to the recently conducted tiger survey, Javadekar said, "It was a challenging exercise, but India has done it and the population has touched 2,967 tigers, which is 77% of the world tiger population. Just like that, we will go ahead with conservation of snow leopards."

The Minister said, India will have a separate programme on snow leopards to include green pathways in the Himalayan region.

“We are confident of winning this important battle against climate change by conserving nature and the animal kingdom including leopards, tigers and there is a commitment to give a better planet to the next generation. The discussion, deliberations and cooperation during the next two days will help the countries to move ahead in nature conservation," he added.

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