Tracking the cat count in Eastern Himalayas

The Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India counted 718 individual animals in the country. Reaching snow leopard habitats in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, part of the Eastern Himalayan region, was a challenge as they lie in inaccessible areas, writes Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

Rohan Pandit has been working on the conservation of the snow leopard by focusing on field surveys in the Eastern Himalayas to understand the habitat and the prey population of the species often called the ghost of the mountain for being elusive.

As a primary key field biologist working for WWF-India for almost six years, Pandit has been instrumental in the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) programme which counted 718 individual animals in the country. The report was released earlier this year. In both Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, the non-profit worked with the forest department as the technical partner.

For this, he interacted with local communities as well as organised seminars and workshops at the initial stage. He also installed camera traps in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, which lie in the Eastern Himalayas. “In Arunachal Pradesh, the training of field staff started way back in 2021. The initial work started in March and continued till October, during which all the field events happened and data compiled. I spent about eight months each in Arunachal and Sikkim. For Sikkim, the training happened during 2022-2023,” Rohan said at his office in Gangtok. Compiling the camera trap data also took a few months.

A difficult terrain

Apart from the Eastern Himalayas, there are snow leopard destinations in the Western Himalayas too. “In Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, the field staff came across signs but no direct sightings were made,” said Rishi Kumar Sharma, who heads the Himalayan conservation programme for WWF-India. This is because of the density factor. “In Spiti Valley and Ladakh (western Himalayas), the snow leopard population density is higher. There can be even five animals per 100 sq km there as the prey density is quite high. However, typically, one snow leopard is found per 100 sq km.”

The Eastern Himalayas are wetter with higher precipitation and the terrain is also more rugged when compared to the Western Himalayas. Pandit informed that reaching snow leopard habitats in Arunachal Pradesh was tough as they lie in inaccessible areas. Communities mostly reside in the lower regions. Sikkim is comparatively better.

“Training new people for the census was a challenge. Getting good work from people who had been newly trained was a problem as many of them were not familiar with snow leopard habitats,” Pandit added.

There are many ways of identifying snow leopard habitats. In Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, there was little prior information available. In the Eastern Himalayas, snow leopards are usually found at an elevation of 3000-5700 metres.

Tools and techniques which provide information on the terrain as well as topography are helpful. Scat marks and pug marks help field personnel in identification. Only a handful of people have actually seen snow leopards, and that includes even the Dokpa pastoralists of North Sikkim.

Conservation of an iconic species

Religious beliefs go a long way in wildlife conservation. In Arunachal Pradesh, people have placed a taboo on the killing of cats. Snow leopards feature in Buddhism. Arunachal’s Monpa tribe shares a deep relationship with them.

Sharma added that religion is now being used as a tool for wildlife conservation globally. Many religious institutions are supporting snow leopard conservation.

According to Sharma, for a successful conservation programme, the entire ecosystem should be studied and not just snow leopards as a species. For this, studying communities, and their beliefs and value systems help a lot. There are pastoral herders in snow leopard habitats.

Sharma’s colleague, Laktsheden Theeng said that in Sikkim everything connected to nature is considered to be holy. She talked of working with communities in gateway villages like Lachen and Lachung which lie in the snow leopard habitat. “When we make action plans, we sit with communities and involve them.  Even women are involved,” Theeng said.

Theeng informed that Lachen is over 100 km from Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok.  In remote areas, communities never understood the meaning of conservation and what kind of animals they were sharing spaces with in the past. In Lachen, many people depend on tourism.

“It helps when communities are informed that they live in important biodiversity areas, and if they protect wildlife, the tourist inflow will increase.One of the goals was banning of plastic water bottles which started in 2008.”

In Sikkim, there are an estimated 21 snow leopards and in Arunachal, 36 animals were counted in the census. Climate change has emerged as a big threat. As the weather has become erratic, predictions cannot be properly made about snowfall. As a result, the prey population of the snow leopard is likely to be impacted.

Udai Gurung, conservator of forest (wildlife), Forest and Environment Department of Sikkim, said WWF-India was already working on snow leopard research in the Eastern Himalayas since 2014. For the assessment, they collaborated with the department.