Wildlife conservationists are heartened by a rare sighting of a snow leopard in what they say is the first member of the endangered species to be captured on camera in Indian-administered Kashmir.
The adult animal was identified from images taken last month using infrared camera traps in a remote region some 3,500 to 3,800 meters above sea level. The trap was installed earlier this year in an effort by the Jammu and Kashmir government to determine how many of the cats exist in the territory.
“In coming days more such findings from the ongoing surveys are expected from these landscapes,” said Munib Sajad Khanyari, high altitude program manager of India’s Nature Conservation Foundation, who explained that the enigmatic animals can serve as a “flagship” for the promotion of conservation and development programs.
“The camera trapping exercise also revealed other important and rare species such as Asiatic ibex, brown bear and Kashmir musk deer, besides incredible information regarding other biodiversity components of such habitats, interactions and threats [which] will be documented in the shape of a final report,” he said.
Snow leopards, weighing up to 75 kilograms, favor the solitude of the snowy Himalayan highlands, making sightings highly uncommon. With their thick, silky, gray coats ringed with black patches, they blend with the granite habitat, contributing to their air of mystery.
Estimates of their total population range from 4,080 to 6,590 spread across 12 countries and nearly 100,000 square kilometers. The entire Indian Himalayas are believed to support only about 500 snow leopards.
“We know very little about the number of snow leopards in Kashmir,” Khanyari said. “From our initial understanding, there are likely to only be a handful of individuals here.”
Intesar Suhail, wildlife warden in the Kashmir Valley’s southern Shopian district, said there have been periodic sightings of snow leopards in the region but until now there had been no photographic evidence of their presence.
“Confirmation in itself is a significant development,” he told VOA. “Till now there were records, but this time we have photographic evidence. In the long run it will help in the conservation effort and protection of its habitat.”
Suhail added that conservation efforts “will be focused around this species as it is a flagship species.”
Khursheed Ahmad, head of the Division of Wildlife Sciences at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, said there is a dire need to better assess the occupancy and population status of snow leopards in order to ensure their survival.
Among the threats facing the creatures are poaching, habitat fragmentation, increased human interference in its habitat and killings by herders concerned about leopard attacks on their livestock.
Global climate change is also putting pressure on the animals, which thrive in the glacial heights of the Himalayas and feed on other animals such as ibex, with in turn feed on plants requiring the same cold climate.
“The climate change is having its impact globally so [this holds] true for Kashmir and needs to be mitigated,” Suhail said. “The snow leopard is an indicator of climate change. Its permanent habitat is in glacier areas and is a very cold area.”
The good news, he said, is that data emerging from the current snow leopard census taking place across India will make it possible to better understand how climate change is affecting their population.
Khanyari, from the National Conservation Foundation, made a similar point based on his personal experience of closely observing a blue sheep, or bharal, and later finding its partially eaten carcass in a cave.
“It really shows you two things — that it is hard to survive in nature and that life and death are a part of nature,” he said. “Also, it shows us how things are interconnected: Without the blue sheep, the snow leopards can’t exist and without the grass, the blue sheep can’t exist. We are all connected.”