Thursday, 3 November 2011

Snow leopard, ghost of the mountains, is disappearing fast

Snow leopard is the most mysterious of all big cats. This cat is found in the mountain ranges of south Asia and central Asia, mostly in the hill ranges of 3,000-5,500 metres high. It is said in India, the habitat of snow leopards is about 1,80,000 sq km; in comparison tiger is found in less than a lakh sq km area. Tiger conservationists often cite the number of rivers that originate in the tiger habitats as one of the reasons for saving tigers. But if seen volume-wise, the rivers starting from Himalayan region of our country , where the snow leopards live , have more water flowing.

In India, the snow leopard is found in five places: Jammu Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. India’s most talented and famed wildlife photographer, Dhritiman Mukherjee, has captured the most spectacular images of this extremely elusive animal when some local informed him that the animal had killed a yak. Before this, most of the images from India were of captive animals or animals captured in camera trap. India’s scientists have studied this animal but most of the work has been restricted to academic level contribution. Seeing this kind of animal may be a dream for most wildlife enthusiasts. But this experience is not like visiting the regular tiger parks, where one enjoys hot meals and clean rooms. To see a snow leopard, one has to endure a freezing cold environment with very little basic amenities at disposal. And it is not guaranteed that you get to see a snow leopard.

Ranthambhore based wildlife photographer Aditya Singh says that it may be tough to spot snow leopards but if efforts are made, we can increase the sighting chances. The cat regularly preys on the livestock of the residents living in its territory. If these people are contacted they can inform one about its presence. But one has to rush before the cat could get away with its prey. In return, the visitor needs to pay the local for yak that the animal had hunted.

Conservationists who don’t take to tourism and photography may dislike this method but for now, this is the key to conservation: The local who lost his livestock will now call a photographer, who compensates the loss — instead of a hunter to shoot the animal. The biggest snow leopard area is in Tibet, with about 70 per cent habitat. Sadly, Tibet is the biggest hub of illegal fur trade, which is the biggest threat to the cat. Not enough animals to prey on due to seasonal migration makes the snow leopard kill people’s livestock, leaving behind a clue of its presence and subsequent poaching. The IUCN in its red data book has listed the snow leopard as endangered.

It is important to increase the community’s involvement in its conservation. Efforts have to be multi channelled. For both Dhritiman and Aditya Singh, it was possible to take the magnificent images of the animals only with the help of the local communities, proving that the right approach with the local communities could lead to efficient solution to snow leopard poaching.

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