Cat on the roof of the world

Prerna Bindra | Updated on January 08, 2018

Icy lair A snow leopard spotted on the rocky slopes of Hemis national park, Ladakh. A keystone species, the Panthera uncia are indicators of the health of their high-altitude habitat — namely, the Third Pole   -  Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh

Turn back: A bharal, or blue sheep, at Hemis National Park. Livestock rearing is edging out this natural prey of the snow leopard, alongside others such as the ibex and markhor.

Turn back: A bharal, or blue sheep, at Hemis National Park. Livestock rearing is edging out this natural prey of the snow leopard, alongside others such as the ibex and markhor.   -  Shutterstock

Cold trail: Their reclusive nature, coupled with the fact that they have large territories and inhabit impossible terrains, make the snow leopard a difficult cat to count

Cold trail: Their reclusive nature, coupled with the fact that they have large territories and inhabit impossible terrains, make the snow leopard a difficult cat to count   -  Shutterstock

The key to Asia’s water security, the elusive snow leopard is bringing hostile nations together for its conservation

“Progeny of the snow mountains,

guardian of their solitude,

enduring through eons of time,

crouched among blue-rock massifs above the high rangeland,

I stand watch.”

— ‘I, Snow Leopard’ by Jidi Majia

Pausing to draw in another lungful of thin, biting air, I take in the dramatic, aching beauty of the Shamshy Wildlife Sanctuary in the small Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. Scree- and snow-covered ridges arc upward in every direction, birthing the river Shamshy, sparkling and racing through the vast valleys. After a short trek, the accompanying rangers and I ‘chatted’ over a meal of lepunshka and compot — so ubiquitous they could well be the national bread and drink of Kyrgyzstan. Conversation is stilted, but language barriers melt when chief ranger Japarov Emil shows images captured in camera traps placed in the reserve: Eagle, hare, pikka, buzzard, a herd of ibex careening down a slope, and... snow leopard! Voice high-pitched with excitement, Emil gesticulates that he saw one last month, casually strolling across his path.

Till recently, Shamshy was a hunting concession, one of the region’s many areas leased to high-paying trophy hunters of ibex and argali sheep — the main prey of the snow leopard. In March 2016, the Kyrgyz government declared it a Protected Area, co-managed by the State, local communities, and the US-based Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) and its local partners. Besides conserving the snow leopard’s prey population, the area is now a base for research, education and, soon, responsible ecotourism in partnership with local communities.

Shamshy is testimony to the highest political support the cat enjoys in the Kyrgyz Republic. Just a day earlier, on August 25, 2017, President Almazbek Atambayev had inaugurated the International Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Conservation Summit at his official residence in the capital, Bishkek. “Today, the conservation of the snow leopard is our main concern. And it is gratifying that the world community shares our concern,” he told a 500-strong global audience comprising cabinet ministers, other government delegates, NGOs, scientists and conservationists, all of whom came together under the aegis of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystems Protection Programme (GSLEP).

This most elusive and mysterious of big cats is now the glue that brings together 12 neighbour nations (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) in central and south Asia, to speak in one voice for the protection of the animal and the mountains it roams. These countries recognise that Asia’s mountain ecosystems are the thread that binds them — ecologically, culturally and spiritually. Snow leopards are keystone species and indicators of the health of their high-altitude habitat — namely the Third Pole, the planet’s largest store of permanent ice and permafrost outside of the North and South Poles. Thousands of glaciers and seasonal snow melt to form the headwaters for Asia’s most important rivers, which provide drinking water and irrigation to billions downstream. “Conserving snow leopards achieves many benefits that go beyond saving a majestic species, such as conserving mountain ecosystems critical to Asia’s water supply and helping local communities adapt to climate change,” said Mary Melnyk, USAID’s Asia Environment Team Leader.

The grey ghost

We do not know how many snow leopards survive. Their cryptic, reclusive nature coupled with the fact that they have large territories — up to 1,000 sq km — inhabiting impossible terrains, make the snow leopard a difficult cat to count. Scientists guesstimate their numbers between 4,000 and 8,000 — China has the most, about 2,000, while at least 450 inhabit the six Himalayan States of India. “Barely two per cent of their range has been surveyed for estimating populations, which too is biased towards best habitats,” says Koustubh Sharma, senior ecologist with SLT.

For aeons, this cat ruled its gaunt, high terrain spread over two million sq km in the mountains of Asia. Found in the Himalaya beyond 3,500m and the treeline, it remained immune to the changes sweeping the plains: The rapid rise of human populations, forests felled for fields and factories, villages morphing into cities, meadows and wetlands paved over in concrete — reducing wild habitats into tiny islands surrounded by a sea of humanity.

Inhabiting one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world — marked by a brutal winter, low oxygen, and a treeless landscape of rocks, ridges, cliffs and ice — the cat is shielded by its thick fur; the long, luxuriant tail, which it drapes around itself, helps keep its balance on rocky precipices and scree slopes. What also helps it survive is its near-invisibility: its smoky-grey dappled coat melds into the rocky, snowy realm. So elusive, that even the hardy mountain people call it ‘the grey ghost of the mountains’.

Winds of change

Inexorably, however, change has arrived at the snow leopard’s tough mountain landscape. Human and livestock populations are increasing, and this degrades the landscape, edging out the predator’s natural prey — the ibex, blue sheep, markhor — and bringing the cat into conflict with humans. Snow leopards are not known to kill humans, but predate on their livestock. When I visited Hemis national park in Ladakh a decade ago, the inhabitants of a tiny hamlet, Zinchen, reported that a shen (as the locals call the animal) had visited just a few days ago. It had entered a pen and killed no fewer than 30 sheep and goats. Such mass killing is infrequent, but even the usual offtake of a goat or two is enough to plunge the owners into poverty. Occasionally they retaliate — by poisoning, trapping or simply beating the cat to death.

Snow leopard derivatives are also traded illegally. During my Ladakh visit, the only snow leopard I came across was a dead one — it’s seized skin, to be precise, at the wildlife office in Leh. An estimated 21-45 snow leopards are killed in India annually, according to a 2016 report by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. Globally, since 2008, anywhere from 221 to 450 snow leopards have been killed annually — either poached for skin or killed in retaliation for loss of livestock. In October 2016, 16 skins were seized in Lhasa, indicating an upsurge in demand.

The once remote habitats are being opened up for ecologically damaging infrastructure such as roads, mining and dams. Climate change is another looming threat, as this hardy cat could lose two-third of its habitat to warmer temperatures, increased precipitation, and changing vegetation patterns. Warmer weather will also drive more people and development into its realm, further accelerating conflict.

Border cats

Snow leopards are border cats, as their habitation falls along sensitive international boundaries that are increasingly being fortified. Most countries are building defence infrastructure for greater access along borders. Take, for instance, India and China, two major geopolitical forces in the region. In response to China’s rapid build-up of roads, railways, air bases along the border in India’s North-East as well as Himachal Pradesh, India has stepped up the construction of infrastructure, particularly roads, along its borders.

To fast-track such projects in ecologically fragile areas, India has eased the environmental clearance process for roads falling within 100 km aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control, the boundary between Chinese-controlled territory and India-held lands. This is expected to expand the road network by 6,000 km along the LAC, promoting access and development in areas spanning the Himalayan — and snow leopard — States of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.

China and India are also racing to seize control over rivers that flow in both nations. China is on a dam-building spree in Tibet, while the Indian Himalayas are set to have the highest dam density in the world, endangering not just snow leopards and other rare wildlife, but also this fragile mountain range.

Even the remotest of mountains have been ravaged. Mongolia’s Tost Uul mountains boast both wildlife and mineral wealth, and were marked out for large-scale mining. Lkhagvasumberel ‘Sumbee’ Tumursukh, researcher with the Mongolian Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, was at the forefront of a campaign to protect this vital habitat. In November 2015, Sumbee’s body was found floating in a lake. The cause of death remains unknown, but three vicious attacks and several verbal threats “to stay away from Tost” had preceded his death.

His tragic death is a sombre reminder of the ongoing bitter conflict over natural resources across much of the snow leopard’s range, and other wild habitats.

Despite multiple threats that have decimated snow leopard populations in some areas and wiped them out in a few others, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has, in its ‘Red list’, lowered the risk perception for the cat from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’. Such a downlisting can further endanger the species. Governments, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders take their cue from the ‘Red list’ regarding the extinction risk of a species. This, in turn, influences conservation action, the level of protection accorded to the animal, and the exploitation and diversion of its habitat.

The reasons behind the ‘downlisting’ are both hazy and murky. While declining to go on record, researchers say the reasons could be anything from personal glory of having “saved a species” to bowing to mining lobbies. Those countering them say that conservation organisations keep “breast-beating” about the endangered status of a species as that ensures “reliable, continued funding”.

A majority of conservationists, however, see it as a ploy to create a false sense of security, resting on the fallacy that a species will adapt to whatever is dished out to it, thus paving the way for diversion of natural habitats.

This, they fear, could lead to a “wave of downlisting”, as has happened in recent years: the giant panda was shifted from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ in 2016, as was the Fishing Cat, even as researchers warn that its habitat — wetlands, marshy areas and mangroves — is being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Saving the snow leopard

The snow leopard has, however, been given a fighting chance — in the form of political support and international cooperation under the GSLEP umbrella. Keshav Varma, international adviser to the GSLEP Secretariat, calls such political coalition for wildlife “unique and unprecedented”. The emphatic opposition by all range countries to the IUCN’s recent downlisting of snow leopards on the false premise of increased numbers, is one such example. “Only a fraction of its habitat has been scientifically surveyed — entirely insufficient for any conclusion,” Varma says.

The roadmap for conservation relies on partnerships with local communities, including sharing the benefits of conservation. Another innovative attempt at the GSLEP summit was to bring together conservation and industry — usually antagonists — on one platform, “with the aim of not just funding conservation projects but also creating ‘green infrastructure’, thereby bringing wildlife sensitivity into development projects,” explains Varma.

A key commitment of the first GSLEP summit in 2013 was to secure 20 critical snow leopard habitats by 2020 — a massive effort given the competing pressures on land — and countries have made considerable progress.

Bhutan has declared its entire snow leopard range as priority area for conservation and is conducting a systematic population survey. Mongolia has committed to protecting an impressive 30 per cent of the country, and has already notified Tost Mountain as a State Nature Reserve dedicated to snow leopards. Kazakhstan is expanding its network of protected areas, acknowledging the snow leopard as “the sacred symbol of its cultural heritage”.

Afghanistan has employed former hunters to help monitor and protect the species using their wildlife tracking skills. Nepal has readied its climate-integrated snow leopard landscape management plan, which factors in climate scenarios of ascending tree-lines, wetter summers and drier winters.

Both India and Pakistan are working to mitigate conflict with predator-proof corrals and insurance schemes to compensate locals for livestock loss. India also focuses on securing alternative livelihoods for herders, to reduce the pressure of livestock on fragile meadows, which wild herbivores — the snow leopard’s natural prey — depend on. Tourism is one such alternative source of livelihood. I remember well my visit to a homestay in Rumbak, in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park. The villagers share the snow leopard’s mountainscape. Earlier, the relationship was hostile, with the cat a threat to their livelihood. The homestay economy has changed this.

Now, they await the snow leopard; its sighting, indeed its mere presence, brings them benefits and enhances their income.

The snow leopard will survive if its human neighbours benefit from it and not bear the brunt of its existence.

It will have a future if borders dissolve and nations unite to protect this iconic guardian of the water towers of Asia.

Prerna Singh Bindra is a conservationst, writer and journalist. Her book The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis was released in June 2017

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Published on October 20, 2017
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