In the restricted field of vision of my binoculars, a rock on a small cliff ledge overlooking a deep gorge suddenly came alive. I couldn’t believe my eyes as the perfectly designed mountain predator moved and stretched her muscles with unparalleled grace in the late afternoon light. I had noticed this ‘rock’ a few times in the last few minutes as I scanned the slopes for signs of life, not realising that the snow leopard had been sitting right there all along. This time, it was her movement that had betrayed her presence. As I watched her, everything suddenly became sublime in the otherwise enchanting but harsh landscape. The throbbing pain in my forehead, from being thrown against a rock by a fast-flowing mountain stream half an hour earlier, was instantly forgotten. The chill from the fall in the ice-cold water had vanished.
This incident took place many years ago. It was my first-ever sighting of a snow leopard in the wild, which had come after a decade of roaming the higher Himalayas. To be able to see a snow leopard was not a common occurrence. These apex predators of the high mountains are superbly camouflaged and it is easy to miss them. They have an uncanny ability to just freeze and melt into the rocky mountainous landscape.
But snow leopards are not just difficult to see. They are rare as well, typically occurring at densities of less than one adult per 100 sq km. Compare this with lions, that, despite being four times larger — and therefore needing more space and resources — can still attain densities that are 30 times greater. Or tigers, that can locally attain 15 times higher densities. We don’t know how many snow leopards still exist in the wild, but there could be fewer than 4,000 distributed in the mountains of 12 Asian countries where they live.
Life is a struggle in the high mountains of South and Central Asia where snow leopards live — the Himalayas, Pamirs, Tien Shan, Altai and other mountains. These are lands of extremes. Winter temperatures can dip to –40 C. Whether you are a plant or an animal, life is tough. The growing season for plants is short, barely 3-4 months in a year. The rest of the year is too cold for plant growth.
Although these high mountains and their glaciers serve as the water towers of Asia, giving birth to mighty rivers such as the Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra, Hwang Ho, Yangtze, and Mekong, their headwaters in the highest altitudes flow through landscapes that are dry and desert-like. Snow leopard habitats are, therefore, not just cold, but arid too. Relatively few plants, adapted to the cold and arid environment, can thrive in such areas, and those that do, can photosynthesize and grow only for a few months each year.
This limited plant growth, in turn, limits the populations of plant eaters, especially wild mountain goats and sheep that are natural prey of the snow leopard: magnificent blue sheep; wild goats such as ibex, that have mastered the art of living in nearly vertical cliffs; and the argali, the largest wild sheep on Earth. When there are fewer prey, there will be fewer predators. This makes snow leopards inherently rare.
Rare as snow leopards are, and remote as their high mountain habitats may be, these predators and humans have actually had a long association. Snow leopards appear in ancient rock art in large parts of Asia’s high mountains. Livestock herding peoples are thought to have used the snow leopard habitats of the higher Himalaya for around 5,500 years, as they have the Altai Mountains. On the Tibetan plateau, seasonal human forays are recorded from 30,000 years ago, and permanent habitation by pastoral peoples around 8,200 years ago.
Whether in ancient rock art, archaeological or historical evidence, or in modern-day mountain people’s lifestyles, the presence of livestock is a ubiquitous and recurrent theme in snow leopard habitats. The historical practice of livestock-rearing continues to be amongst the most important foundations of local economies and lifestyles of the mountain people living in snow leopard habitats today. This brings snow leopards close to people.
Though snow leopard abundance is largely determined by the abundance of their wild prey, being predators, they often kill livestock as well. For the people who share the habitat, these losses are difficult to bear, and, in retaliation, snow leopards are killed. The pressure on already sparse snow leopard populations get further intensified due to the market demands for their fur and bones.
Further, as livestock populations grow, they tend to compete with wild prey over forage, depleting their populations as well. Add to that, there is the hunting of wild sheep and goat in many areas. The net result is even fewer snow leopards.
The only robust way to conserve snow leopards is by enabling local communities to coexist more amicably with this predator. In our work at the International Snow Leopard Trust and our partner organisations like the Nature Conservation Foundation, we do this through research and community-based conservation initiatives. Critical to our work is building respectful relationships with local communities, and implementing programmes that help with livelihood initiatives to strengthen local economies and engage women. Our initiatives also include collaborative predator-proofing of livestock corrals, helping establish community-managed livestock insurance programmes, and collaboratively creating livestock-free ‘village wildlife reserves’ on pasture land. Locally, such conservation efforts have led to an increase in wild populations to the extent that snow leopard-focused tourism has become a source of livelihood for local people in some areas. Decades of our experience working with local communities for snow leopard conservation in multiple countries led to the formalisation of the so-called PARTNERS Principles, which are broad guidelines for engaging and training in community-based conservation.
Today, the world of snow leopards is changing rapidly. Their once remote habitats no longer remain untouched by global markets and economies of scale. Mining, infrastructure development, new roads, fragmentation and opening up of habitats, and economic growth based on unsustainable exploitation of natural resources are the new threats these mysterious cats and their habitats face today. Climate change poses intense and unanticipated threats, including the increased frequency, scale, and intensity of natural disasters.
A couple of years back, during one of my field visits to the higher Himalaya, we were stuck en route in a village for five days due to excessive rain and snow that had also triggered serious landslides and rock fall. My son Shivi, who was eight then, had accompanied me on this trip, as he had done on a few visits earlier. This trip in particular turned out to be a special one for him. As we waited out the fury of the elements, on the last day before the weather and roads cleared up, we sighted a snow leopard at a blue sheep kill not far from the village. We watched the cat for five hours, fascinated but hungry at the same time. In a classic case of poor parenting, I had failed to ensure that we had enough to eat, but the boy was a sport.
As I watched the snow leopard with Shivi, the irony of the situation was evident. On the one hand, in the inclement weather we were perhaps witnessing the worrying consequences of global climate change. On the other, the incredible sight of this unencumbered snow leopard and the realisation that it was still possible for a child to witness and admire one of nature’s finest creations, left me with renewed hope for the future.
Snow leopards may be close to extinction, but they still persist in large parts of Asia’s high mountains. Despite their rarity and the significant threats they face, we still have a chance to ensure a future for them and their precious mountain habitats. And we still have a chance to ensure prosperity and well-being of mountain people who have shared their habitat for millennia. For this, however, the paradigm of economic development must change. Governments must facilitate, businesses and industry must ensure and investors must support sustainable and socially inclusive development and local entrepreneurship in the snow leopard mountains of Asia. It is critical for snow leopards, and indeed for humanity, that the colour of economic development in Asia’s high mountains changes to green. We owe it them. And we owe it to the children of Shivi’s generation.