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Snow leopards: Elusive and beautiful big cats

A rapid estimate of the economic value of some prominent services generated from snow leopard habitats in India is nearly $4 billion a year, the bulk of which comes from hydropower and generated electricity (US$3 billion), followed by livestock and agriculture (US$0.5 billion), and tourism (US$0.4 billion). Owing to the importance of this landscape, the Government of India has considered Snow Leopard as the flagship species for the Himalayas. In an act of cooperation for the goal of conservation of the species and its habitat, Governments of the Snow Leopard range countries have joined hands pledging to secure a better future for the species. Conservation efforts and initiatives are being undertaken through the various programmes such as the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP). Technical and financial support has been provided from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through projects in 9 of these 12 countries. 

The Snow Leopard acts as an INDICATOR of the health of the entire ecosystem in which they live, due to their position as the top (apex) predator in the food web. It has been listed under Appendix I (species that are the most endangered) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It has also been listed under Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), and in 2002 its status was elevated to ‘requiring Concerted Action’. The Snow Leopard is also listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List. India has listed the Snow Leopard in Schedule I of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, according highest degree of protection. 

The SECURE Himalaya project is a part of “Global Partnership on Wildlife Conservation and Crime Prevention for Sustainable Development” (Global Wildlife Program) funded by the GEF and is being implemented in Botswana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, the Republic of Congo, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in Africa. The SECURE Himalaya project has a budget of USD 11,544,192 and is expected to leverage USD 60,820,000 as co-financing from the range states. The Himalayan region is the center of the globally endangered Snow Leopard’s (Uncia uncia) range. The total habitat of the Snow Leopard in India is around 75,000 square km. The Western and Eastern Himalaya (including Nepal) forms an important link between the Central Asian and East Asian populations of snow leopards, and serves as a vital corridor for the genetic interchange between these populations.While an exact population count is unavailable, the Snow Leopard numbers have been estimated been 300 to 700 in India. The distribution of Snow Leopard in India includes five states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the Western Himalayas and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas. 

Threats

A number of factors have contributed to the decline in the Snow leopard populations globally. These include a reduction in prey populations (which includes the Blue sheep, Tibetan Aragali and Himalayan Tahr), illegal poaching and increased human population infiltration into the species habitat. There are increasing occurrences of human wildlife conflict owing to the increasing interface between humans and wildlife. There has been severe habitat degradation of the snow leopard and the habitat of its prey due to unsustainable infrastructure development and land use practices, over-exploitation of bio-resources especially high value medicinal and aromatic plants and over grazing in high altitude pastures. Illegal trade of wildlife parts and products and other natural resources is also a key concern in the efforts towards conservation. Limited options for alternative livelihoods and inadequate knowledge about the fragile Himalayan ecosystem pose severe threats to the snow leopard habitats.

Tapas Bhattacharya

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