April 24, 2016 Anindya Roy

The Ghost Who Lives High, snow leopard

snow leopard

“They wait for the twilight to betray themselves. Armed with lethal weapons they attack quietly on unassuming grazers in semi darkness, with ruthless precision and predatory power. The enemy is killed and consumed”.

The night was setting in on our high altitude campsite at Thachungtse, Ladakh. All the tired feet were ready for a dinner. Couple of semi-wild yaks in the near horizon and a troop of blue sheep high on the opposite mountain slopes, no one imagined that the stage was set for a predatory intervention. The big cat, the holy guardian of the land was watching us and especially the blue sheep.

The predator decided to move for a kill, with a thick tail it gracefully balances itself downhill through steep rocky slopes, yes the stalker is none other than the elusive Snow Leopard (Panthera Uncia).

Stage was set for a classic wild hunt, a chase which very few people have actually witnessed.

The big mountain cat sneaks its way down the slope hiding behind the rocky ridge-line. It looks for an ambush position. We the tired but rocky feet, watch in amazement from the valley below. A high altitude drama was to unfold.A sudden rush of unrealistic speed and the peace is broken. The group of blue sheep (aka Bharals) run for cover. They climb a high ridge and cover astonishing distance in no time. It seems the predator will go hungry today. Calmly it takes refuge in the vast shadowy mountains as darkness seeps in, but does not forget to give us a spine-chilling stare.While we were fortunate enough to witness the majestic animal in its primal habitat, we also knew these scenes of reality might well be the last one we will ever see again in life. The amazing animal of high altitude is vanishing, like many of others who share this planet.

Snow Leopard

  • Conservation status – IUCN Red List – Endangered (globally)
  • Wild Population – Estimated at only 4,080 to 6,590 individuals by McCarthy, et al., 2003. Many of these estimates are rough and outdated.
  • Population distribution – Alpine and semi-alpine Central Asia (namely -Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan).
  • Exact Population – It is very hard to estimate the wild population mainly because they inhabit rugged landscapes and are very elusive by nature.
  • Adaptations for cold – Enlarged nasal cavity, Long fur with woolly undergrowth, Thick furry tail for wrapping around body and face.
  • Behaviour- Snow leopards are usually solitary, except when females are raising cubs.  Mating occurs in late winter and 1 to 5 (usually 2 or 3) cubs are born 90-100 days later.  The cubs remain with their mother until they become independent—normally after about 18-22 months. These cats are most active at dawn and dusk. They may stay in an area for several days and then abruptly move many miles.

 

Threats

  • Poaching – illegal hunting for the fur trade, and trade in bones for traditional Asian medicine.
  • Loss of prey – a decline in numbers of wild prey due to hunting and competition with livestock for grazing.
  • Problem animals (depredators) – snow leopards kill livestock and are killed by herders in retribution.
  • Loss of habitat – more people and livestock move into snow leopard range fragmenting habitat, so snow leopards become isolated and vulnerable
  • Lack of effective protection – most protected areas are too small to protect the home range of even a single snow leopard, and many countries cannot afford to pay rangers living wages.
  • Lack of awareness and support – herders living with snow leopards sometimes do not understand why they are important elements of the ecosystem and why they need to be protected.

There are various organizations who are dedicatedly working towards the conservation of Snow Leopards and their natural habitat as a whole. Snow leopard is regarded as a sign of a healthy ecosystem, its presence indicates that the prey species like – Thar, Ibex, Marmot and numerous other dependent species are also healthy.

There is an ever growing need to include and encourage participation of local people in any conservation effort. Snow leopards are very often killed by local herders, who lose their livestock to the predator. Any conservation effort to protect the predator must consider the livelihood of affected individuals. Non – profit organizations like Snow Leopard Trust, Snow leopard Conservancy have set up agendas to achieve the goal of conservation.

Conservation Methodology :

  • Understanding snow leopard behaviour and successful monitoring of their habitat.
  • Listening to community to understand the need of local people, to educate them and make them partners towards successful conservation.
  • Seeking resources to continue the endeavour for future conservation efforts.

 

The Prey: Blue Sheep

Pseudois Nayaur

  • – Stocky body and stout legs
  • – Robust shoulders and broad chest
  • – Weighs between 35 to 75 kg
  • – Very well camouflaged
  • – Expert climbers, almost always remain near cliffs
  • – Capable of very fast retreat
  • – Uses alarm calls to signal danger
  • – Lives in groups of 5 to 400 individuals
The Predator: Snow Leopard

Panthera Uncia

  • -Long and strong tail for balance and   insulation
  • -Large and furry paws act as shoe on snow and rocky surface
  • – Weighs 48 kg on average and can take down prey three times larger
  • – Can leap 30 metres and chase for 300 metres at full speed
  • – Built for ambush, kills with a lethal bite on the neck
  • – Hunts almost 30 Blue sheep annually

Links to major organization websites, who are acting towards Snow Leopard conservation:

Snow Leopard Trust – http://www.snowleopard.org/

Snow Leopard Conservancy – http://www.snowleopardconservancy.org/text/how/threats.htm

 

 

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