Snow leopard photographs encourage wildlife conservationists in Kashmir

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 caught on camera in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The adult animal was identified from images taken last month with infrared camera traps in a remote region between 3,500 and 3,800 meters above sea level. The trap was set up earlier this year in an effort by the Jammu and Kashmir government to determine how many cats exist in the territory.

“More such findings from ongoing studies of these landscapes are expected in the coming days,” said Munib Sajad Khanyari, manager of the high altitude program at Nature Conservation Trust of India, who explained that the enigmatic animals can serve as a “flagship” for promoting conservation and development programs.

“The camera trapping exercise also revealed other important and rare species such as the Asian ibex, brown bear and Kashmiri musk deer, as well as incredible information about other components of those habitats’ biodiversity, interactions and threats. [which] will be documented in the form of a final report,” he said.

Snow leopards, which weigh up to 75 kilograms, prefer the solitude of the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas, making sightings very rare. With their thick, silky gray fur, surrounded by black spots, they blend in with the granite habitat, contributing to its air of mystery.

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

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

Estimates of its total population range from 4,080 to 6,590 spread over 12 countries and almost 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. “Based on our initial understanding, there are likely only a handful of people here.”

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

“The confirmation itself is a significant advance,” he told VOA. “Until now there were records, but this time we have photographic evidence. In the long run it will help in the effort to conserve 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 Wildlife Science Division at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, said there is a compelling need to better assess the occupancy and population status of snow leopards. to ensure their survival.

Threats facing the creatures include poaching, habitat fragmentation, increased human interference with their 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 the ibex, which in turn feed on plants that require the same cold climate.

“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 the glacial areas and it is a very cold area.”

The good news, he said, is that data emerging from India’s current snow leopard census will provide a better understanding of how climate change is affecting their population.

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

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

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