In early summer, as the impenetrable winter snow of the Pir Panjal mountain range starts melting, the migratory Gaddis shepards start moving with their large flocks of sheep and goat. They undertake an arduous journey following age-old traditional routes that take them across the high passes of the Pir Panjal range across to the alpine pastures of Lahaul and Spiti. They graze their livestock on the nutritious grasses growing on the sunny and green slopes and valleys of this arid cold dry chain of mountains in the trans-himalayas. They share this habitat with local wildlife including Ibex and Blue Sheep. These wild mountain goats are the favourite prey of the apex predator of this ecosystem, the elusive ‘grey ghost’ – the snow leopard.
A vicious cycle
The endangered snow leopard roam over large areas, with average adult individual home ranges of 130 km2. Hence this top predator, travels across diverse terrains with differing prey distribution and human settlements. The snow leopard’s range across the Himalayas is essentially a multiple-use landscape where local and migratory pastoral communities like Gaddis and Pangwals have grazed their livestock for millennia. In fact, livestock predation by snow leopards brings them into conflict with these local herding communities, and their retaliatory persecution is one of the biggest threats the cat faces for its survival. In some areas where rangelands are overstocked with livestock the problem becomes even more acute as wild prey faces a decline because of competition with livestock which can potentially further escalate the extent of livestock depredation.
Land-sharing over Land-sparing
Snow leopards have relatively large home ranges, and of the 170 protected areas in the global snow leopard range, 40% are smaller than the home range size of a single adult male! Hence, conservationists generally agree that snow leopards must be conserved through a land-sharing approach, rather than relying on land-sparing in the form of strictly protected areas.
Despite the clear need for knowledge based conservation for snow leopards and high altitude species, very little is understood about the state of knowledge on snow leopards, even on pressing conservation issues such as the human wildlife-conflict.