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First Census Puts Snow Leopard Population in India at 718

First Census Puts Snow Leopard Population in India at 718

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NEW DELHI, Jan 30: India has an estimated 718 snow leopards in the wild, according to a four-year long estimation exercise, the first-of-its kind, the results of which were released on Tuesday.

Known to be an elusive cat and located in mountainous terrain that is hard to access, the numbers for the first time mark a base threshold for the animal’s numbers in India. The maximum number of cats were estimated to be in Ladakh (477), followed by Uttarakhand (124), Himachal Pradesh (51), Arunachal Pradesh (36), Sikkim (21), and Jammu and Kashmir (9). The current estimate puts the number of Indian snow leopards at 10-15% of the global population.

The exercise involved setting up cameras, or ‘camera traps,’ in 1,971 locations and surveying 13,450 km worth of trails which teams surveyed for recording signs of snow leopards such as scat, hair and other body markers. Much like the approach used in surveys to estimate tiger numbers, States conducted the surveys and the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous body of the Union Environment Ministry, used software and statistical methods to estimate the number of individual cats that are present but not caught on camera and combined them with those caught on camera.

“Essentially we use a similar statistical approach to that being used in the tiger surveys for the last 20 years. It’s a rigorously tested equation and not dependent on guesswork,” V.B. Mathur, former head of the WII who is now involved with the study, said. “Over the years, technology and statistics has improved leading to better estimates. What we now have is a good, scientifically established baseline that will be a reference for future surveys,” he added.

The Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) began in 2019 and involves the World Wide Fund for Nature-India and the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru, along with the WII. The snow leopard is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and faces threats such from free ranging dogs, human wildlife conflicts, and poaching.

Scientific surveys to estimate their numbers began in the 1980s though the area over which the animal ranged was undefined due to a “lack of extensive nationwide assessments,” the Environment Ministry noted. Previous assessments have estimated the animal’s population at 400-700. Before 2016, approximately one-third of the range (around ca. 100,347 km2) received “minimal research attention.”

Recent status surveys have significantly increased understanding, providing preliminary information for 80% of the range (about 79,745 km2), compared to 56% in 2016. “Unlike the tiger, poaching isn’t a major issue for snow leopard. The surveys actually led to a fair number of sightings. An interest by the Environment Ministry and global interest in the conservation of the species has resulted in these estimates,” Mr Mathur said.

(Manas Dasgupta)

 

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