Panthera uncia. The mighty yet elusive “Snow Leopard”. These agile creatures are high altitude dwellers with sheep and goats as their meal. Labeled as Vulnerable by the IUCN, their habitat ranges in the high altitude regions of 12 countries including Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The first range maps were published in 1972 (Hemmer 1972) and were bettered by Hunter & Jackson 1997 with the advent of Geographic Information Systems.
Snow leopards have adapted themselves to sustain the harsh climatic conditions. The treacherous mountain slopes are no match for this creature’s ability to hunt. The poor ungulate had no idea what just happened and the last feeling it probably had was having razor sharp teeth being sunk in its skin. What makes them such skillful predators? Pull up an image of snow leopard. Observe the length of its tail. Now pull up an image of a tightrope walker balancing himself with a rod/stick. This long tail acts as a counter-weight and helps the snow leopard balance itself while chasing prey, particularly on slopes. The tail has an added benefit of wrapping around and protecting it from cold temperatures (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).
Being the apex member of its food chain, it becomes imperative to sustain dwindling numbers of snow leopards and help conserve them. The main driver of declining snow leopard populations is habitat degradation due to climate change and increasing human-snow leopard conflicts along with illegal wildlife trade. Various instances have been recorded regarding human-snow leopard conflicts where snow leopards consumed domestic prey and the local residents kill them in return. Conscious and meaningful efforts are the need of the hour. Indian government is slowly taking steps in the right directions and decided to set up Snow Leopard Conservation Center in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand state in August 2020. Incidentally a few weeks later confirmed snow leopards sightings were recorded in Gangotri National Park in Uttarkashi district.
Theodore Roosevelt said “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will.” Various factors are causing habitat loss and the majestic feline is slowly losing its home. Concentrated efforts of the government authorities by involving local residents and stakeholders and meticulous research will pave the way for a better future of Snow Leopards.
About the Author : Akshay Khanna works as a Branch Manager in State Bank of India. He is a Post Graduate in Environmental Science, and even after his busy work schedule he finds time to follow his passion for exploration and wildlife conservation. Email : [email protected]