In search of the endangered snow leopard, in the upper Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh

Print edition : December 18, 2020

A snow leopard. It had been estimated that India could have at the most 600 of these animals, located in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Snow leopards are comfortable even on narrow paths on steep rocky slopes. Photo: Nature Conservation Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust

A camera trap photograph of a snow leopard in its natural habitat. Photo: Rodney Jackson/Snow Leopard Conservancy

A snow leopard pug mark photographed in Gangotri, Uttarakhand, in November 2015. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Kibber village in winter, in the upper Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. It is home to about 80 families. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A fine markhor male in the Chitral Gol National Park, Pakistan. Photo: C.R. Zaharan

An adult male Himalyan tahr, one of the ungulate species snow leopards prey on. Photo: B. Pellizzi

An adult male ibex near Chicham bridge. Ibexes and bharals are the primary food of snow leopards in India. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A pair of female ibexes. Photo: Gobind Bhardwaj

An adult male bharal. Photo: Pranav Trivedi

A woolly hare. It is one of the animals, besides the bharal, the ibex and other ungulates such as the markhor, the Tibetan gazelle and the argali, that the snow leopard preys on. Photo: Udai Veer

A Himalayan marmot. It is one of the animals, besides the bharal, the ibex and other ungulates such as the markhor, the Tibetan gazelle and the argali, that the snow leopard preys on. Photo: Gobind Bhardwaj

A lammergeier, one of the impressive birds of the Himalaya. Photo: Gaurav Singh

A wild yak bull in this rare picture in Upper Kumla, Nepal. Yak calves are vulnerable to snow leopards. Photo: Naresh Kusi

The village of Chichim in summer. Photo: Kulbushansingh Suriyawanshi

The Shilla Range, the Spiti Valley. Photo: Abhishek Ghoshal

The Berginia ciliata flower on a wet slope. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The thorny Astragalus strobiliferus (hedgehog plant). Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Key Monastry, in all its grandeur. Photo: A.J.T Johnsingh.

Women from Kibber pose with the handicrafts they made. The Nature Conservation Foundation has set up training centres in handicraft-making for women in order to promote snow leopard conservation in the upper Spiti Valley. Photo: Munmun Dhalaria

Charudutt Mishra, founder trustee of the Nature Conservation Foundation and science and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust, with colleagues Karma Sonam, Saloni Bhatia and Stanzin Namgail. Photo: Nature Conservation Foundation

The Nature Conservation Foundation has done commendable work over the past two decades to protect the snow leopard in the upper Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, but more efforts from all concerned will be needed to overcome the threats the big cat faces in its range.

IT was around 11 a.m. and the sun was bright but the temperature was around −5 degrees Celsius. The cloudless sky was beautifully blue, and all around us the mountains, except for some brownish rocks, were covered in milk-white snow. We, a bunch of keen wildlifers, were on the road between the Key Monastery and Kibber village in the upper Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh trying to locate a female snow leopard with her three approximately eight-month-old cubs that were sheltering among the rocks near by in the mountain north of the road. The snowmelt of the Pari Lungbi stream flowed towards the Spiti river in a deep gorge between the road and the mountain. The gorge was so deep and its slopes so steep that possibly only snow leopards, ibexes and bharals would be able to negotiate them. A hundred metres to the right of us at the edge of the gorge were three ibexes, a female, a young male and a kid, feeding on the brown and scanty vegetation there. Ibexes and bharals are the primary food of snow leopards in India, and as the ibex seldom ventures east of the Sutlej gorge, snow leopards in Nepal and Bhutan primarily survive on the bharal.

Spotting the cats

A lammergeier kept flying around us, which enabled Gaurav Singh, one of our young colleagues (who had driven all the way from Jaipur, Rajasthan, to Kibber to join us on this trip), to get some excellent pictures of it. The previous day (March 15) Gaurav Singh and Manjunath Muniyarappa and Omkar Pai, our other young colleagues (both from Karnataka), and the trackers saw the snow leopards in a location called Bandang, east of the Kibber-Chicham road, but were unable to get satisfactory pictures as the animals were too far away. They also saw the bharal, the red fox and the snowcock, all at a distance, and got a glimpse of the golden eagle, one of the most majestic, beautiful and powerful birds of prey in the world. On March 16, the snow leopards were seen in Thang, which we were told meant that the family had travelled about 5 km at night.

Our wait for the snow leopard family lasted up to around 4 p.m. when the animals finally left the heap of rocks and went up a snow-covered ridge, giving everyone a clear view of them. At that point the bone-chilling cold had become so unbearable that we returned to the warmth of our homestay in Kibber village.

Journey to Kibber

Our visit to Spiti was planned in September 2019 when we were in Botswana, at the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and we decided to make the trip in March 2020. It was at the invitation of Sanjeet Mangat, one of our companions in Botswana who is involved in promoting wildlife tourism as a partner of the Bengaluru-based Naturextreme India Private Limited. When he heard that we had not seen snow leopards (A.J.T. Johnsingh saw their pug marks in the Pin Valley, Himachal Pradesh, in the late 1980s and early 1990s), he invited us to Spiti with the promise to show us the elusive cat.

In February, helped by M.N. Nanda Kumar, another partner in Naturextreme India, we bought and hired warm clothing and snow boots. On March 9, we boarded our flight from Bengaluru to Chandigarh from where we embarked on the 240 km, eight-hour-long journey to Rampur Bushahr, Himachal Pradesh, in a van. Night set in when we were beyond Shimla. While crossing hill stations such as Kufri and Narkanda, we saw blocks of snow dirty with soot and mud at the side of the road. The clusters of homes on the wooded hill slopes with their lights on looked like bunches of large fireflies in the forest.

Our stay in Rampur Bushahr was in the Nau Nabh Heritage Hotel, which is a part of the iconic Padam Palace. In the morning, on stepping out we were treated to an impressive view of the palace. On the hotel grounds was a huge fruiting Ficus religiosa (sacred fig) tree with a good number of Himalyan barbets, bulbuls and five-striped palm squirrels feeding on its fruits. After breakfast, we started our 240-km-long uphill journey to Tabo: Rampur Bushahr is at a height of 1,020 m and Tabo is at 3,380 m. We were warned that by the time we reached the snowbound Tabo it would be well into the night and extremely cold, so we made sure to keep our warm clothes ready for immediate use. As we drove, a colourful and attractive plant growing on a wall-like wet slope drew our attention. It was photographed and later identified as Bergenia ciliata with the help of G.S. Rawat, an authority on Himalayan flora. The species is endemic to the temperate regions of the northern and eastern Himalaya.

The drive took us past small towns such as Pooh and Sumdo. Our driver proved to be exceedingly efficient and drove with the utmost of care. The road was being widened in many places, which has led to several landslides over the years. We went past a few of the hydroelectric projects on the Sutlej, for example, the Nathpa Jhakri dam and the Karchham Wangtoo power plant. Johnsingh saw road widening even in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he visited the Pin Valley in the company of G.S. Rawat and research students from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, Uttarakhand.

Himalayan rivers are usually deep blue and beautiful in winter, but the debris and dust falling into the river from the road-broadening activities had made the Sutlej turbid and brown. The sad outcome of this is that all fish in the river would have died of suffocation a long time ago. There were apple orchards in places where the soil and terrain conditions were suitable, with some orchards even touching the snowline. Until it became dark, we kept our eyes peeled for goral and bharal but were unable to see any animal. In Tabo, we stayed at a homestay facility called White Lotus.

In the morning after breakfast, we left for Kibber, which is 75 km from Tabo. The road was along the left bank of the Spiti. Johnsingh noticed that there was a lot more development—more apple orchards and many more homes—now in the valley than during his previous visit in August 1995 when he had driven along this road in the company of Charudutt Mishra, founder trustee of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) and science and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust, and his colleagues. Kaza town, which was on the way to Kibber, had grown since we had last seen it, but the ancient Key Monastery retained its remembered grandeur. Immediately after Key, we saw that the river valley farmlands had electric fencing and that there was no fencing after that. We wondered whether fields beyond the fenced area suffered from the problem of crop raiding by the ibex and the bharal.

Kibber and ecotourism

Kibber village, bordering the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, has about 80 families and fewer than 400 people. The sanctuary was established in 1992 and has an area of 2,220 square kilometres, with its elevation ranging from 3,600 m to 6,700 m above mean sea level. Vegetation in the area is sparse, but several plants found here have medicinal properties. C.P. Kala, a former student of the WII, carried out an extensive survey of the sanctuary and recorded several medicinal plants—such as Aconitum rotundifolium, Arnebia euchroma, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, Ephedra gerardiana and Gentiana kurroo—that amchis (practitioners of Tibetan medical systems) use.

The NCF has been working in the upper Spiti Valley for the past 20 years promoting snow leopard conservation, an initiative Charudutt Mishra started, and has carried out surveys of about 2,000 sq km of the area (most parts are outside the sanctuary) with camera traps. The number of snow leopard estimated for the area is close to 25. Our stay in Kibber village, at a homestay facility, for six nights gave us a good opportunity to learn about the snow leopard ecotourism that Naturextreme India was promoting in Spiti. Sanjeet Mangat said that a few people started visiting the area in 2013. Naturextreme India started its snow leopard tourism programme in February 2017, and now there are about 12 tour operators who bring wildlifers from India and abroad to try and see the snow leopard.

Snow leopard ecotourism is carried out only in February and March. The January night-time temperatures can be as low as −30 degrees C, which is too cold for tourism. In April, the snowmelt and consequent sprouting of vegetation in the upper reaches of the mountains attract the ibex and the bharal to the higher terrain and the snow leopard follows them there. Sanjeet Mangat said there are some nature and wildlife watching and stargazing programmes in summer. Snow leopard ecotourism is largely confined to the Kibber area, and some 250 people of the village get employment as cooks, taxi drivers, porters and trackers in the February-March period; there is some employment in the summer months, too. This is a welcome change for the residents of Kibber as it gives them the opportunity to earn some money in winter, a season that they would otherwise spend mostly at home near the hearth. The people of Kaza also benefit as many snow leopard ecotourists stay in homestays, resorts and hotels in the town. Sadly, as we write this article in November, snow leopard tourism has come to a temporary halt as residents of the upper Spiti Valley have requested the government not to permit outsiders into the valley until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.

We were impressed by the way the trackers from Kibber and Chicham villages were able locate snow leopards for tourists. They set out in different directions early in the morning when the temperature would be around −15 degrees C, maybe after a frugal meal or just a cup of tea, to locate pug marks in the snow and follow them as long as the terrain permits. It appears that snow leopards, just like tigers, prefer to rest at one place in the daytime. On both March 15 and 16, snow leopards were resting when seen. Possibly knowing where snow leopards are likely to be resting, the trackers use their sharp eyes and binoculars to locate the animals and then use mobile phones to convey the message to tourists waiting in the homestays. Once told about the presence of snow leopards, they rush to the location in a vehicle. Sometimes, the cats can be seen and photographed from the road itself, and at other times a trek across the snow-covered landscape becomes inevitable, which is possible only for the young and the fit. The trackers carrying heavy camera equipment lead the way and stay with the tourists until they return to their vehicles.

Research and findings

As we drove and walked around in the villages of Kibber, Chicham and Key, we learnt from Sanjeet Mangat about the local territorial male snow leopard that became famous after it was filmed in March 2018 hunting what some people say was a female bharal and others say was an ibex. Snow leopards are thought to stalk predators, but the male of the video, which died recently, reportedly at the age of 13, is seen stalking, running and leaping from a ridge top into a deep valley after its prey before killing it. We were shown the location where this incredible hunt is supposed to have happened. One can say that the snow leopard seems to be the supreme predator among the large cats; a tiger could never survive killing a deer the way the male snow leopard killed the bharal/ibex, and such a feat would be difficult even for the common leopard, which is known for its arboreal capabilities.

It is also a great achievement that a female snow leopard is able to raise three cubs in a landscape where the wild prey density is reported to be very low (1 to <5/sq km); tigresses are able to raise cubs only in areas where the wild prey density is a minimum of 25-30/sq km. When we were watching the snow leopards on March 16, we asked the trackers whether the family would move towards Key. Interestingly, even though infanticide has not been reported in snow leopards, as it often is among tigers, the trackers said that the female would not go to the Key area as that was the territory of another male, which might kill the cubs. According to Charudutt Mishra, who for his PhD fieldwork studied the competition between wild ungulates and livestock around Kibber village, snow leopards do not practise infanticide mainly because the difference in size between the male and female is not significant as is the case with tigers. A male snow leopard would not dare to kill cubs as the female would easily be able to fend him off. In the evening, we saw the female cat accompanied by the cubs going in the direction opposite to Key.

Upper Spiti is in a cold desert region, which is known for low biological productivity. The landscape can be under snow for about six months. We saw very little vegetation and of what we saw we could identify only five species. The edible plants were Cousinia thomsonii and Rosa webbiana and the inedible plants were the thorny Astragalus strobilifera and the coarse-looking Calamagrostis pseudophragmites. With its attractive red leaves, a bush of Ribes orientale (oriental gooseberry) was conspicuous against the snow, and although there were nearly 50 ibexes not far from the bush, there was no sign that any of them had been feeding on it. Charudutt Mishra explained that the Ribes species are rich in phenolic compounds that can impede herbivore digestion, and that is why herbivores do not feed on them.

Over the decades, about 100 sq km area near Kibber village in the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary has been the focus of significant research by biologists from the NCF—Charudutt Mishra, Kulbushansingh Suryawanshi and their colleagues. Their findings are as follows: the overall ibex and bharal density in the upper Spiti valley was 1.26/sq km, which is low; the overall snow leopard density was 0.6 individuals per 100 sq km; the contribution of livestock (primarily goat and sheep) to the diet of the snow leopard was around 30 per cent; and the bharal density, which can be influenced by livestock grazing, ranged from 3 to 7/sq km. In heavily grazed areas, the adult female bharal to young ratio was 55:100 and in moderately grazed areas the ratio was 83:100.

The global population of the snow leopard is around 5,000, and Yashveer Bhatnagar of the NCF estimated that India could have at the most 600 of them, located in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. In its range, besides the bharal and the ibex, the snow leopard preys on numerous species such as the argali, the Himalyan tahr, the markhor, the marmot, the Tibetan gazelle, the woolly hare and young calves of the wild yak. The first use of radiotelemetry to track the snow leopard was in Nepal by Rodney Jackson, an American biologist, and in India, it was in Ladakh by Raghu Chundawat of the WII.

Some decades ago, snow leopard sightings around Kibber were either very rare or nil, although these snow cats were often seen in the Pin Valley. The snow leopard has come into the area around Kibber village largely because a nearly 400 sq km grazing-free area was established around Kibber. This was possible because of the excellent rapport Charudutt Mishra and the NCF team developed with village residents. The NCF team has taken other measures to promote snow leopard conservation: established a community-based livestock insurance scheme, ensured that livestock corrals are strengthened to prevent snow leopards from killing livestock at night (livestock often get killed), and set up handicraft-making training centres for women. The women make handicrafts in winter when they are free. The income from handicrafts may not be much, but in December every year, the NCF takes 10 women, in rotation, with their products to Delhi to participate in an exhibition, which gives them immense encouragement and inspiration. In 2007, Pranav Trivedi of the NCF started a conservation education programme involving schoolteachers of the Spiti Valley. For several years before the programme was stopped, nature education camps were organised every summer for children from nearly 20 schools of the valley.

In recent years, there are reports that snow leopards and common leopards have been seen on the outskirts of the Gangotri National Park in Uttarakhand. This is largely due to the downward migration of the bharal in peak winter, which may result in the snow leopard coming into areas tenanted by the common leopard. If a conflict arises, the much more aggressive and powerful common leopard will be the winner.

The major problems the snow leopard faces throughout its range are poaching for its beautiful pelt and people killing its wild prey for meat. Extensive livestock grazing can lead to disease transmission to wild ungulates and robs ungulates of the forage they need to survive. One problem we noticed in the snow leopard landscape, which exists in many Indian wildlife areas, was the wandering of free-ranging dogs. Chandrima Home and her colleagues, working in Spiti, found that these free-ranging dogs are a threat to livestock, wild ungulates and snow leopards. Free-ranging dogs can be aggressive and do occasionally rob the kill of a meek snow leopard. The best option to deal with these dogs is to get village residents to keep their dogs at home. Problem dogs, however, should be eliminated from the snow leopard and other wildlife landscapes without any hesitation. On the basis of the results of NCF research, one can say that the long-term conservation of the snow leopard in the frigid mountains will succeed only if many grazing-free areas, both small and large, are established and managed with the help of local communities; the government continues to focus on controlling the poaching of both the snow leopard and its prey; and there are sustained efforts to address the problem of free-ranging dogs.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru; WWF India; and the Corbett Foundation. S. Murali is a retired professor of the Ayya Nadar Janaki Ammal College, Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu.

The authors thank Madhavi Sethupathi, Mervin Johnsingh, Charudutt Mishra, R. Raghunath, Pranav Trivedi, Kulbushansingh Suryawanshi and Ajay Bijoor for their help with this article.

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