HomeScienceWildlifeSnow Leopard Photographs Cheer Wildlife Conservationists in Kashmir

Snow Leopard Photographs Cheer Wildlife Conservationists in Kashmir

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 photos taken last month using infrared camera traps in a remote area about 3,500 to 3,800 meters above sea level. The trap was installed earlier this year in an effort by the government of Jammu and Kashmir to determine how many cats live in the territory.

“More such findings from the ongoing surveys are expected from these landscapes in the coming days,” said Munib Sajad Khanyari, high-altitude program manager for India’s Nature Conservation Foundation, explaining that the enigmatic animals could serve as a “flagship” for the promotion of conservation and development programs.

“The camera capture exercise also revealed other important and rare species such as Asiatic ibex, brown bears and Kashmir musk deer, in addition to incredible information about other biodiversity components of such habitats, interactions and threats. [which] will be documented in the form of a final report,” he said.

Snow leopards, weighing up to 75 kilograms, prefer the solitude of the snowy highlands of the Himalayas, making sightings highly unusual. With their thick, silky, gray coats surrounded by black spots, they merge with the granite habitat and add to their mysterious atmosphere.

A snow leopard is seen in the Thajwas area of ​​Baltal in Indian-administered Kashmir. (Thanks to the Nature Conservation Foundation)

Estimates of their total population range from 4,080 to 6,590 spread over 12 countries and nearly 100,000 square kilometers. The entire Indian Himalayas are believed to be home to only about 500 snow leopards.

“We know very little about the number of snow leopards in Kashmir,” Khanyari said. “From our first understanding, there are probably only a handful of individuals here.”

Intesar Suhail, a wildlife watcher in the southern Shopian district of the Kashmir Valley, said snow leopards have been regularly sighted in the region, but there was no photographic evidence of their presence until now.

“Confirmation in itself is an important development,” he told VOA. “Until now there were records, but this time we have photographic evidence. In the long run, it will help preserve and protect its habitat.”

Suhail added that conservation efforts “will be focused on this species as it is a flagship species.”

Khursheed Ahmad, head of the Department of Wildlife Sciences at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, said there is a great need to better assess the stocking rate and population status of snow leopards to ensure their survival.

Among the threats the creatures face 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 animals, which thrive in the glacial heights of the Himalayas and feed on other animals such as ibexes, which in turn feed on plants that need the same cold climate.

“Climate change is having an impact worldwide [this holds] applies to Kashmir and should be mitigated,” Suhail said. ‘The snow leopard is an indicator of climate change. Its permanent habitat is in glacial areas and is a very cold area.”

The good news, he said, is that data emerging from the current census of snow leopards across India will make it possible to better understand how climate change is affecting their populations.

Khanyari, of the National Conservation Foundation, made a similar point based on his personal experience of closely observing a blue sheep, or bharal, and later finding the partially eaten carcass in a cave.

“It really shows you two things: that it’s hard to survive in nature and that life and death are part of nature,” he said. “It also shows us how things are connected. Without the blue sheep, the snow leopards cannot exist, and without the grass, the blue sheep cannot exist. We are all connected.”

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