Photographs of snow leopards encourage wildlife advocates in Kashmir

Wildlife advocates are encouraged by the rare sighting of a snow leopard in what they say is the first member of the endangered species to be filmed in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The adult animal was identified from images taken last month using infrared camera traps in a remote area between 3,500 and 3,800 meters above sea level. The trap was set earlier this year as part of an effort by the government of Jammu and Kashmir to determine how many cats exist in the territory.

“In the coming days, more such finds from the ongoing surveys are expected from these landscapes,” said Munib Sajad Khanyari, high altitude program manager at the Nature Conservation Foundation of India, who explained that the enigmatic animals can serve as a “beacon” for promoting conservation and development programs.

“The camera trapping exercise also revealed other important and rare species such as Asiatic ibex, brown bear and Kashmir musk deer, in addition to incredible information regarding other biodiversity components of these habitats, interactions and threats. [which] will be documented in the form of a final report,” he said.

Snow leopards, weighing up to 75 kilograms, prefer the solitude of the snow-capped highlands of the Himalayas, which makes sightings very rare. With their thick, silky gray coat surrounded by black spots, they blend into the granite habitat, contributing to their mysterious air.

A snow leopard is seen in the Thajwas region of Baltal in Indian administered Kashmir.  (Courtesy of the Nature Conservation Foundation)

A snow leopard is seen in the Thajwas region of Baltal in Indian administered Kashmir. (Courtesy of the Nature Conservation Foundation)

Estimates of their total population range from 4,080 to 6,590 spread across 12 countries and nearly 100,000 square kilometers. The entire Indian Himalayas are thought to be home to only around 500 snow leopards.

“We know very little about the number of snow leopards in Kashmir,” Khanyari said. “Based on our initial understanding, it’s likely that there are only a handful of individuals here.”

Intesar Suhail, a wildlife warden in the southern district of Shopian in the Kashmir Valley, said there had been periodic sightings of snow leopards in the area but there were only until present no photographic evidence of their presence.

“Confirmation in itself is an important development,” he told VOA. “So far there have been records, but this time we have photographic evidence. In the long term, this will help the conservation effort and the protection of its habitat.”

Suhail added that conservation efforts “will be focused on this species because it is a flagship species.”

Khursheed Ahmad, head of the Wildlife Science Division at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology, said there is a dire need to better assess the occupation and population status of snow leopards to ensure their survival.

Among the threats facing the creatures are poaching, habitat fragmentation, increased human interference in its habitat, and killings by ranchers concerned about leopard attacks on their livestock.

Global climate change is also putting pressure on animals, which thrive in the glacial heights of the Himalayas and feed on other animals such as the ibex, which in turn feed on plants requiring the same cold climate.

“Climate change has an impact on a global scale, so [this holds] true for Kashmir and needs to be mitigated,” Suhail said. “The snow leopard is an indicator of climate change. Its permanent habitat is in glacial areas and it is a very cold area.”

The good news, he said, is that data from the current census of snow leopards taking place across India will provide insight into how climate change is affecting their population.

Khanyari of the National Conservation Foundation made a similar point based on his personal experience of closely observing a blue sheep, or bharal, and later finding its partially eaten carcass in a cave.

“It really shows you two things – that it’s hard to survive in nature and that life and death are part of nature,” he said. “Furthermore, it shows us how things are interconnected: without the blue sheep the snow leopards cannot exist and without the grass the blue sheep cannot exist. We are all connected.”

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