High Altitudes

PAWS: Population Assessment of the Worlds Snow Leopards - A case study from Himachal Pradesh

Picture courtesy : Rigzen Dorjay

Understanding range, distribution, population density of the Snow leopard in different type of habitats

The IUCN status of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is contentious because of a lack of robust estimates of the global population size of this enigmatic big cat. Despite decades of research and the significant advent of technology, a robust understanding of the population status of the snow leopard remains elusive. For estimating its global population size, scientists have sampled only about 2% of the total species range using robust scientific methods. Studies caution against the potential bias that arises due to insufficient and biased sampling for estimates of population size and questions the down-listing of the snow leopard status from endangered to vulnerable. Additionally, we do not know if the good quality habitats for this large carnivore have already been lost. The dearth of data on the population estimates of snow leopards from unsurveyed areas has created a huge knowledge gap.

From the high altitude Himalaya to the rugged mountains of the beautiful Tien-Shan in Kyrgyzstan, this magnificent species has become the icon of conservation. Conservation of the species also serves a great deal in conserving the unique ecosystem of high mountains and the culturally diverse human communities. Rapid socio-economic changes and local developments are threatening this unique system. Historical persecution, retaliatory killing and large scale habitat destruction are major threats faced by this species throughout its range.

Recognizing this, the governments of twelve snow leopard range countries have formed a coalition to form the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP). GSLEP meetings have given rise to project PAWS or Population Assessment of the World’s Snow leopard and have involved all concerned ministries from different countries for policy-making. The goal of the PAWS project is to get a scientifically robust estimate of the global population size of the snow leopards.

Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) is one of the leading partner organizations to conduct research work for the PAWS project in India. NCF and the Himachal Pradesh forest department have embarked on an ambitious plan to estimate the snow leopard population for the entire state of Himachal Pradesh in a state-wide survey approach.

The goal of the project

Previous studies show that snow leopard uses a wide range of habitats in this vast landscape and mostly inhabit areas which are outside protected areas (protected areas cover only 17% of the landscape in snow leopard territory in Himachal). Surveys show a 25% contraction of snow leopard inhabited areas in Himachal and cumulative 8% contraction (Ghoshal et al., 2017) of its main prey species – blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and Himalayan ibex (Capra sibrica) in last two decades. One of the main goals of our research team at NCF is to understand the state of the snow leopard population in the state of Himachal Pradesh covering all the snow leopard inhabited areas.

Working on an unprecedented scale

In partnership with the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and with the help of local research staff, NCF is trying to come up with robust estimates of snow leopard population size in the state as a part of PAWS project and also for contributing to the larger knowledge pool.

This large scale population estimation will be done in six districts in around 20,000 Km2 area which is unprecedented. The camera-trapping survey will cover the Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur, Shimla, Kullu, Kangra and Chamba districts. We plan to sample different habitats, some are great, some are less ideal. “As long as our sampling represents all available habitat types across the state, we can arrive at a representative, reliable estimate of the whole state’s population”, explains Dr Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, the director of NCF’s High Altitude Programme.

In conjunction with the snow leopard population estimation for the state, NCF is working to get estimates of prey populations from the same study sites. This will help us in understanding the predator-prey ecology of the snow leopard and its ungulate prey for these areas. This will be the first attempt from India to conduct such a large scale estimation of the population of snow leopard and its prey.

Potential outcomes

The estimate of the snow leopard population based on a large scale sampling of different kind of habitats will produce a more robust estimate of snow leopard population.

This study will contribute to the PAWS project to estimate the world’s snow leopard population and help GSLEP in policy-making.

The prey population estimation along with the PAWS project will help to build an ecological understanding of the population trends for this animal.

Engagement with local people and capacity building will be achieved due to this large scale survey.