Project Snow Leopard: towards a national conservation policy
There is an urgent need for formulating a comprehensive wildlife conservation policy and action plan for the Indian high altitudes. We are catalyzing the development of such a policy under the banner of a ‘Project Snow Leopard’.
The High-altitudes of the Himalaya
India’s high altitudes are characterized by a unique wildlife assemblage that faces serious and urgent threats. Pervasive traditional use of the landscape and natural resources by local human communities provides both the need and scope for a participatory conservation approach. There is an urgent need for formulating a comprehensive wildlife conservation policy and action plan for the Indian high altitudes. We are catalyzing the development of such a policy under the banner of a ‘Project Snow Leopard’.
The high altitudes of India spanning the Himalaya and Trans-Himalaya biogeographic zones support a unique wildlife assemblage of global importance. This includes highly endangered populations of species such as the snow leopard Uncia uncia and the black-necked crane Grus nigricollis, two species of bears Ursus spp., red panda Ailurus fulgens, mountain ungulates such as the wild yak Bos grunniens, chiru Pantholops hodgsoni, Tibetan gazelle Procapra picticaudata, Tibetan argali Ovis ammon, Ladakh urial Ovis vignei, musk deer Moschus chrysogaster, three species of goral Nemorhaedus spp., serow N. sumatraensis, and takin Budorcas taxicolor, to name a few.
The high-altitudes and wildlife conservation
From the viewpoint of wildlife conservation, the high altitudes have remained relatively neglected. While a substantial proportion of India’s population including policy makers are aware of the precarious conservation status of species such as the tiger Panthera tigris and Asian elephant Elephas maximus, and of the efforts to conserve them (such as the Project Tiger), few are aware of even the existence of species such as the chiru, the kiang Equus kiang, and the snow leopard in India. he high altitudes represent a vast rangeland system supporting an important traditional pastoral economy and lifestyle. Pastoralism in the Indian high altitudes dates back to several millennia, and, today, forms an important traditional means of livelihood that has economic and cultural value.
India’s high altitude wildlife today faces a variety of threats. The snow leopard, wolf, and other carnivores are widely persecuted in retaliation against livestock depredation. Many mountain ungulate populations, important prey of these carnivores, are being depleted and lost due to competition with livestock, as well as hunting for meat.
Seasonally migrating livestock herds, as well as livestock imported into the region for the army pose a serious risk of spreading exotic diseases to wildlife. Overstocking rangelands with livestock is causing vegetation degradation, which threatens the sustainability of pastoral production as well as the survival of wildlife populations.
There are increasing linkages between local persecution of wildlife and the larger illegal wildlife trade. Unplanned tourism threatens sensitive and biologically important high altitude wetlands. Although in many areas there has been substantial cultural tolerance for wildlife, this is fast eroding in the face of development and human-wildlife conflicts.
Furthermore, the existing high altitude protected areas in India are inadequately managed. The protected area management in the Indian high altitudes faces an acute lack of resources, manpower, and training. Most existing protected areas do not have a clear boundary demarcation. Many protected areas are only nominal, and large areas within them are of little biological value. The remaining areas are intensively used for livestock grazing and other forms of resource extraction, even inside National Parks.
The harsh, remote, and marginal landscape provides few opportunities for alternate livelihood sources for the local communities, and it is nearly impossible to create and maintain large, inviolate National Parks. All protected areas in the region lack proper management plans and, in contrast to the tiger and elephant reserves, have hardly received any conservation attention. Protected area management in the region needs to be rationalized with clear management plans and land use zonation, and greater resources need to be made available to wildlife managers.
The 'Project Snow Leopard'
Wildlife management in the region needs to be made participatory. Given the widespread occurrence of wildlife on common land, and the continued traditional land use within protected areas, it is imperative that wildlife conservation efforts be made participatory both within and outside protected areas. The success of recent experiments in participatory conservation underscores the desirability and feasibility of participatory wildlife management in the Indian high altitudes.
Against this background, we are currently catalyzing the formulation of a scientifically robust and socially responsible wildlife conservation policy for the Indian high altitudes, called the Project Snow Leopard. The mission is to safeguard India’s unique natural heritage of high altitude wildlife populations and their habitats by promoting conservation through participatory policies and actions.
A document articulating the need and objectives of the Project Snow Leopard was drafted at a meeting in early 2004, which saw contributions from a small but diverse group of people including scientists and conservationist, and members of the Indian Forest Service and the local community. The document was developed further through contributions by the Chief Wildlife Wardens of all the five high altitude states of India, who have strongly endorsed the effort.
In 2004-05, we conducted state level workshops in all the five high altitude snow leopard range states of the country (Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir). Following these, we organized the National Workshop on 10-11 July 2006 in collaboration with the state government of Jammu and Kashmir and the Ministry of Environment and Forests, during which an outline of the strategy and action plan was developed www.conservation.in/publication.php. Among the 13 recommendations of the workshop was the formation of a Drafting Committee with the responsibility of preparing a full strategy document that will guide Project Snow Leopard in the country. NCF members were part of this 13-member committee and drafted the document, which was released by the Honourable Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Thiru S. Regupathy on 20 Jan 2009.
The Project Snow Leopard is essentially a program that will help in the development of clear conservation vision for biologically important landscapes and suitable scientific management plans, while also providing financial support for implementation of these plans. During the first year, each of the five states will identify one landscape under the project that may include PA(s), but will not be limited to PAs alone. Surveys will be conducted to identify the mosaic of multiple ‘cores’ where human use will be minimized, harmonized or completely stopped in a consultative process with the community.
The implementation structure of the project will include representation from the village cluster level up to a steering committee at the central level. At the central level, a Steering Committee chaired by the Director General of Forests & Special Secretary to the Government of India will help guide the project. Each Range State will have a State Snow Leopard Conservation Society that will coordinate work by the Landscape-Level Implementation Committees, which in turn will coordinate work by the Village Wildlife Conservation Committees. A central steering committee has been notified that has representation of NCF. In fact, NCF and the Wildlife Institute of India have been identified as the main NGO and Government organization, respectively, to help implement Project Snow Leopard.
Project Snow Leopard also provides scope and resources for conservation and research by NGOs, individuals and civil society groups interested in the snow leopard and other high altitude wildlife of the Indian Himalayas.