The ghost who stalks

Print edition : August 23, 2013

The snow leopard, the mysterious cat of the high mountains. The image was captured using a camera trap. Photo: by special arrangement

Walking along a snow-covered ridgeline in peak winter. The big cat is adapted fully to the low-oxygen, harsh environment. Photo: dsfsf

An ideal snow leopard habitat is a good mixture of lush green meadows and rugged cliffs and ridgelines. While the meadows support wild ungulates and livestock, the mountains provide the cat sufficient cover for hunting and movement. Photo: dfsd

The Himalayan Blue Sheep, or the bharal, the primary prey of the snow leopard. Photo: Charudutt Mishra

A typical flehmen response by a snow leopard. Photo: by special arrangement

A snow leopard surveys the landscape early in the morning, as captured by an automatic motion sensor camera. Photo: sdfsd

A typical village in Spiti with its traditional houses. A crop of barley, the local people's staple food, is in the foreground. Photo: hjhgjg

Two local youth assist the research team to set up camera traps on a ridgeline. Photo: sd

The "mountain ghost". Photo: sas wddsad wsd

A snow leopard caught on camera. Repeated photo-captures by camera traps spread across a large area give an idea of the home range of individual snow leopards. Photo: by special arrangement

The rugged mountain landscape. For ages, people have struggled to eke out a living in this cold, low-productivity, desert environment. Photo: dfdsfd

A typical snow leopard territory with a rivulet and mountain peaks. The green slopes of the mountains are the feeding ground of ungulates such as the blue sheep and the ibex. Photo: sdfds

Hiding amidst the shadows of jagged mountains and unforgiving crags is the snow leopard, a creature so mysterious that only a few would have had the luck to catch a glimpse of it.

NESTLED amongst the windswept peaks of the mighty Himalayas is a land where time seems to have come to a standstill. This is Spiti, a valley with breathtaking views, located in Himachal Pradesh. “Spiti” means “middle kingdom”, an apt name for a land ensconced on the border with Tibet. A vast landscape spread across approximately 7,000 square kilometres of Trans-Himalayas, Spiti has a low population density, of less than 1 per hundred sq km (the average population density of India is 325 per hundred sq km). Every year, for three or four months in winter, the valley is cut off from the rest of the world because of heavy snowfall, when temperatures drop to as low as −40° Celsius.

For ages, people of the valley have struggled to eke out a living in this cold, low-productivity desert environment. Pastoralism is the backbone of the local economy. Avoiding the subdivision of the scarce agricultural land is a social system driven by economic and religious considerations: it ensures that every second child in a family becomes a monk or a nun. Dotted with monasteries, new and old, Spiti is a stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism.


The apparently barren mountains, however, are home to a unique assemblage of wildlife, including the Asiatic ibex, the blue sheep (bharal), the red fox, the stone marten, the mountain weasel, the long-tailed marmot, the woolly hare, the plateau pika and the Tibetan wolf. The wildlife in this region is spread far and wide, and the continuity of the habitat is broken only by natural geographic barriers and not by any man-made ones.

Hiding amidst the shadows of jagged mountains and unforgiving crags is the snow leopard, a creature so mysterious that only a few would have had the luck to catch a glimpse of it. Adapted fully to the low-oxygen, harsh environment, the leopard is the unchallenged predator of the high snowy mountains and is at the apex of the food chain. A smoky grey coat mottled with black rosettes provides the snow leopard such an excellent camouflage that it can become almost invisible in its natural environment. In the harsh winters, snow leopards grow a thicker fur. The winter coat becomes slightly lighter in colour than the summer coat to retain the camouflage on the snow. Their legendary camouflage and the elusive nature have earned snow leopards the title “mountain ghosts”.

Elusive the snow leopard might be, but diminished wild prey populations, especially in places where overgrazing by livestock has reduced rangeland quality, often forces it to seek out livestock in and around the villages. Throughout the distributional range of snow leopards across central Asia, the biggest threat the cat faces is retaliatory killing by angry herders. The people of Spiti with their Buddhist beliefs seek harmony with their surroundings, including invasive wildlife. However, when pushed to the brink, they sometimes take extreme steps, especially when the issue concerns their very livelihood.

Grazing-free reserve

Understanding and appreciating these concerns, a young biologist, Charudutt Mishra, initiated a community-based livestock insurance scheme in 2002 along with conservation education and awareness programmes. The insurance programme was a major relief for local people as livestock has always sustained the local economy, even though cash crops such as green pea are rising in importance. The local communities reciprocated by agreeing to set aside a 500-hectare area as a grazing-free reserve, where wild prey populations, particularly that of the blue sheep, the primary wild prey of snow leopards, were expected to resurge.

From being uneasy neighbours, the humans and the snow leopard have evolved an equation that is mutually beneficial. When asked what she thought about snow leopards, a schoolgirl told me: “If there are no snow leopards, the blue sheep’s numbers will go on increasing and they will eat all the grass in our pastures, leaving very little for our livestock.” According to Padma Chetan, another resident, fewer snow leopards enter the villages now than 15 years ago. Since the hunting of blue sheep and ibex has ceased, their populations had gone up and therefore snow leopards had no need to come to the villages and kill livestock. It appeared like an ideal conservation achievement, but was it true?

After the hunting had ceased and certain areas were set aside exclusively for the wild ungulates, the populations of Himalayan blue sheep and ibexes have been gradually increasing. Owing to the lack of disturbance in their foraging grounds, they are almost unmindful of the human presence, and I have often been able to approach them as close as 20 metres. Spiti probably is one of the few places in the mountains of central Asia where wildlife can be observed at such a close range. Once, a government official who was excited by the prospect of hunting blue sheep feeding close to the road was severely reprimanded and warned off by the local people. With the cooperation of the local people, continuous research and monitoring activities by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysore, and the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department ensure that the wildlife remains safe.

Camera trapping

Given the enigmatic nature of snow leopards and their naturally low population densities, observing them directly for a research study is not possible. Radio telemetry and camera trapping are exciting techniques to obtain reliable information about the cat. However, deploying and monitoring camera traps in snow leopard terrain is an exercise that demands excellent physical fitness and a firm resolve. The batteries powering the camera traps run out rapidly in the cold environment, necessitating frequent monitoring of camera traps. Moreover, there is the risk of avalanches and bad weather. When studying tigers in central India, I used to set up 10 to 15 camera traps in a day with the help of a four-wheel drive vehicle. In Spiti, however, I have never been able to set up more than four traps in a day as I have to walk over the mountains to set them. Apart from the logistical problems and challenges posed by the terrain, there is the issue of density of the leopard population. Even in the better snow leopard habitats, the density is less than 1 per 100 sq km. Besides, though every snow leopard has a unique pelage pattern, the rosettes on the thick shaggy coat can sometimes be hard to discern, especially if one does not get a good photograph.

As a field biologist studying snow leopards and their conservation, I primarily use camera traps to photograph them. The photographic data generated by camera traps are primarily used to estimate the population size through statistical methods. The data also provide insights into the population structures of the snow leopard, such as its sex ratio, the number of breeding females, and the number of cubs. The photographs are also useful in making a crude appraisal of the physical health of an individual leopard. Repeated photo-captures by camera traps spread across a large area (preferably over >1,000 sq km) also give an idea of the home range of individual snow leopards.

My project has benefited from the generous support of wildlife conservation organisations such as Panthera (New York, United States) and the Snow Leopard Trust (Seattle, U.S.). The Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, our collaborator, has ensured logistical support in terms of manpower, networking and liaising with local government officials and paramilitary forces, and ensuring the safety of the camera trap equipment. One has to study large areas to gain a better understanding of the cats’ ecological needs and to get meaningful estimates of their population size. Having to cover a large area with camera traps was one limitation that I wanted to overcome. For this, I scrambled a team of two young but trained field assistants and three local guides with their pack animals. Our enthusiasm soared high when Sushil Dorje from Kibber village, with more than 15 years of experience working with the NCF and assisting researchers in this landscape, agreed to join the team.

In the autumn of 2011, I set out to place 30 infrared camera traps in an approximately 1,000 sq km area in the Upper Spiti Landscape (USL) to estimate the snow leopard population size, detect signs of breeding and assess snow leopard response to a range of parameters such as terrain, prey and anthropogenic factors. The next one month was a mixed bag of fun, despair, adventure and danger. My team had to cross freezing streams, 70-degree slopes and 1,000-m steep climbs in a low-oxygen environment, sometimes all packed into a single day. This was nothing surprising when we were on the trail of a species of the high mountains, an audacious climber at that, the grey ghost of the mountains.

Our camera-trap photographs suggested that the snow leopards were faring well as there was evidence of mating pairs and females accompanied by cubs. In a preliminary camera-trap exercise that I conducted in 2009, a beautiful female snow leopard was captured along with her two cubs. She was christened Tara, which in Buddhism denotes a female Bodhisattva representing the virtues of success in work and achievements. Tara, as evinced by our camera trap pictures, successfully raised the two cubs, which were growing increasingly mischievous and adventurous. It was a sure sign that the elusive ghost of the mountains was bouncing back. We recorded 12 snow leopard individuals in the circa 1,000 sq. km. landscape.

NCF scientists, in close collaboration with the Snow Leopard Trust, are trying to find scientific solutions for human-snow leopard conflicts and are assessing the opportunities for and threats to the continued coexistence of people and snow leopards in this multiple-use landscape. Owing to its remoteness and difficult terrain, the land was until recently considered outside the purview of any rapid or unplanned development. But the uncomfortable relations with neighbouring China has forced the Central and State governments to undertake road development on an unprecedented scale.

The difficult mountain roads that so far permitted only a slow and cautious approach and remained closed for most part of the winter are in the process of being transformed into all-weather highways. The Himachal Pradesh government has ensured that every household, howsoever remote, does have a connecting road and electricity. This is commendable given the logistical challenges.

However, overzealous government officials have extended this infrastructure to the short summer settlements used for agriculture for two or three months, thus effectively converting them into attractive places for permanent settlements. Roads built in the mountains also lead to major landslides.

Snow leopards usually do not occupy land above 5,500 m as the decreased oxygen levels impose adverse physiological costs on them as well as their prey species. Altitudes beyond 5,500 m have rocks and snow and do not support vegetation. This means that ungulates cannot inhabit such places and therefore explains the absence of snow leopards as well. In winters, when the high mountains have a thicker cover of snow, both snow leopards and their prey species move to the lower altitudes. The winter snow thus restricts their range and also brings them much closer to the human populations concentrated in the river valleys.

At the current human population density, the snow leopards seem to be doing fine, but an increase in anthropogenic and developmental pressures can change this equation. Increased human presence can directly affect the activity patterns of snow leopards as they are secretive and naturally shy of people. Correspondingly, reduction in the size or the quality of rangelands will adversely affect the wild ungulate species. Spiti is also emerging as an important tourist destination, and the time is ripe for a socially and ecologically responsible tourism policy to emerge.

The snow leopard is the very spirit of these high mountains dotted with colourful prayer flags and reverberating with the sound of the dungchen. In Tibetan Buddhism and in many mountain cultures, the snow leopard is considered the protecting deity of the mountains.

It is hard to imagine the trans-Himalayas bereft of the most splendid of all cats. Will Tara raise yet another litter without fear of retribution? Will yet another snow leopard roam freely in the mountains, negotiating deftly the dangerously unstable and treacherous terrain while stalking the blue sheep on windswept slopes? Is a continued coexistence between humans and the snow leopard possible? Science is helping to provide answers to some of these questions, but the fate of the people and the snow leopard is intertwined with the health of the fragile mountain ecosystem which both call their home.

Rishi Kumar Sharma,from the Wildlife Institute of India, is currently pursuing his PhD at the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. He has been studying big cats for the past eight years.

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