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Himachal supports snow leopard population, shares man-animal bondage

The snow leopard landscape is dominated by Buddhists, who mostly grow peas and potatoes and have adapted themselves to co-exist with the wild animals as the species are deeply embedded in their folklore.

IANS | New Delhi |

The Himalayan range of Himachal Pradesh supports a good population of the wide-roaming snow leopard with a bulk of its occurrence is reported outside protected areas, indicating deep-rooted man-animal bondage.

This fact came to light in the just-completed three-year first scientific assessment by the state wildlife wing in collaboration with the Nature Conservation Foundation.

But the separate study points to an alarming trend too with the rise in the population of abandoned dogs that might pose a threat to the snow leopard and its food chain.

The snow leopard, a graceful golden-eyed animal with thick fur, padded paws, and a long tail, is found in rocky regions at an altitude from 2,700 to 6,000 meters (8,900 ft to 20,000 ft).

As a flagship species, Himachal has adopted it as its state animal.

The estimation by laying camera traps indicated an estimated population of 73 snow leopards, said Forest Minister Rakesh Pathania.

He told IANS the estimation revealed that its density ranged from 0.08 to 0.37 individuals per 100 sq km in the trans-Himalayan regions of Spiti, Pin Valley and upper Kinnaur with recording the highest densities, both of the predator and its prey, mainly the blue sheep (bharal) and the mountain ibex.

The study covered the entire potential of the snow leopard habitat, covering an area of 26,112 sq km by utilising a stratified sampling design, explained Nature Conservation Foundation Assistant Programme Director Ajay Bijour.

“Now we have a reliable scientific estimation. Earlier estimations were carried out unscientifically. With the robust baseline data in hand, we can now repeat the snow leopard estimation once in four-five years to know their population trends — rising or declining,” he said.

Officials involved in the snow leopard estimation said camera trapping surveys were conducted at 10 sites to representatively sample all the strata i.e. high, low and unknown.

The camera trap deployment over the mountainous terrains was led by a team of eight local youth of Kibber village and more than 70 frontline staff of the forest department who were trained in this technique as part of the Snow Leopard Project that started in 2018.

They were spotted at all 10 sites — Bhaga, Chandra, Bharmour, Kullu, Miyar, Pin, Baspa, Tabo, Hangrang and Spiti — suggesting the snow leopard is found in its entire habitat in Himachal Pradesh, either as resident individuals of a population or as dispersing individuals navigating through these connecting habitats, says the study.

The Forest Minister said the results provide a robust baseline for the wildlife wing to set up a long-term monitoring project to track the population of snow leopard and its wild prey species.

The Nature Conservation Foundation had earlier carried out the snow leopard occupancy survey in 2012 in Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba districts through interaction with locals, mainly herders.

“There were many gaps in the previous survey that was more on assumptions. Now, we have robust statistics that indicate the state supports a good population of the snow leopard that shares a wide-ranging habitat,” Bijour told IANS.

However, wildlife experts have expressed concern over the rising population of the abandoned dogs in high mountains that might pose a threat to the snow leopards and their food chain.

Another first-of-its-kind latest study by the state wildlife wing through the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) says the rise in the population of feral dogs in the habitat of the snow leopard is a matter of concern.

Chief Wildlife Warden-cum-State Project Director of SECURE Himalaya, Archana Sharma, told IANS that the issue of feral dogs in high-altitude areas is a bit concerning as they are reported to lead to biodiversity loss, depredations of wildlife species and also competing with large carnivores like the snow leopard.

As globally, few studies are available documenting the impact of feral dogs on wildlife, hence, in order to understand their current population status and impacts in Lahaul-Pangi landscapes, this study was conducted under the program entitled ‘SECURE Himalayas — Securing livelihoods, conservation, sustainable use and restoration of high range Himalayan ecosystems.

ZSI Scientist Lalit Kumar Sharma said a multi-pronged approach of camera trapping, trail sampling, non-invasive genetics, and questionnaire survey was used to gather information on the feral dogs in the Lahaul-Pangi landscape.

He said the feral dog density was found to be 2.78 individuals per 100 sq km on an average ranging from 1.4 to 5.5 individuals per 100 sq km in Lahaul and Pangi areas.

Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Anil Thakur said as per the ZSI report the feral dog are preying upon the marmot, the blue sheep and rodents species, Also their diet is dominated by domestic livestock, a matter of great concern.

He said although the population density of feral dogs is not at an alarming stage, this is the right time to start mitigation planning of the imminent threat in the Himalayan ecosystems.

Thakur favored long-term monitoring and more intensive studies to understand the possible impact of feral dogs on wildlife using the different monitoring protocols.

According to Manoj Thakur, State Project Officer with SECURE Himalaya, on the basis of the ZSI findings the state Forest Department and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in association with the local community will start the feral dog management by sterilization and awareness generation.

Apart from the Spiti Valley, the state’s Pin Valley National Park, the Great Himalayan National Park, and the Pangi and Bharmour areas of Chamba district have a sizable population of snow leopards.

The snow leopard landscape is dominated by Buddhists, who mostly grow peas and potatoes and have adapted themselves to co-exist with the wild animals as the species are deeply embedded in their folklore.