The Mountain Ghost

This ‘ghost of the mountains’ – is one of the most enigmatic and least understood of the big cats. It is a symbol of the rugged yet fragile transhimalayan landscapes of India. Protecting this top predator means conservation of the whole landscape and it’s ecosystem.

Habitat is also the ‘water tank’ of East and South Asia

Melting of massive glaciers in the cold dry wind swept Tibetan plateau and the high snowclad Himalayan mountains of Central and South Asia, form the headwaters of three of the largest river systems of South Asia – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. China’s lifelines, the mighty Yangzte and Huang Ho rivers also originate in the Tibetan plateau. In other words, this region is rightly called the ‘Water Tank’ of millions of people in Asia. Local people depend on these ecosystems for food, water, mineral resources, medicinal and aromatic plants, livestock, cultural traditions and spiritual values. This vast region is also home to one of the most mysterious and elusive predator– the Snow Leopard. The range of this enigmatic cat includes landscapes in 12 countries including the Himalayan mountain states of India (Fig.1). The global population of snow leopards remains unknown, but estimates put the number at just 4,000 to 7000 individuals; their exact number is relatively unknown given they are extremely elusive and challenging to survey. The species is very rarely seen even by local people. However, new research, including camera trapping, is beginning to indicate there may be more snow leopards than previously thought.

Securing Snow Leopards

This ‘ghost of the mountains’ – is one of the most enigmatic
and least understood of the big cats. It is a symbol of the
rugged yet fragile trans-Himalayan landscapes of India.

Where are Snow Leopards found in Himachal Pradesh?

In the Himalayas, they usually occur between 3,000 and 5,400 meters above sea level (Fig.2). Snow leopard landscapes are typically composed of dry alpine systems with semi-arid shrub lands and grasslands.

Trans Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh – a dry cold mountainous region stretches from Kinnaur in the east, through Spiti, Lahaul and across to Pangi in the west. This rugged terrain is classic Snow Leopard habitat. Of the 600-700 individuals found in India, Himachal is proud to host an estimated population of 70 to 100 of this majestic and endangered animal. In fact, it has been declared as the State animal. Snow leopard symbolizes the rich natural and cultural heritage of the ecologically significant

Competition and conflict with domestic livestock

The snow leopard’s habitat exemplifies a complete and diverse ecosystem that is coinhabited by both the migratory and resident pastoralists along with the wildlife of that region. However, with the decreasing prey base and the unprecedented thrust on infrastructure development in the remote parts of the Himalaya has opened these habitats to human pressures leading to newer threats. The reach of mass tourism and human habitations in these high-Himalayan regions has led to garbage and consequent increase in free-ranging dogs. These new predators are causing irreparable losses to livestock and wildlife. All this coupled with illegal hunting and wildlife trade, pervasive grazing by migratory livestock such as yak and sheep leaving lesser grazing spaces for wild prey like ibex and blue sheep has further greatly affected snow leopard conservation strategies. It is these threats that underscore the importance of community-based landscape conservation approaches to protect the fine balance of the snow leopard’s habitat and all the numerous species that rely on it.

What would happen, if you remove all Snow Leopards?

The Snow Leopard, in ecological terms is an Apex Predator. An apex predator, or top predator, is a predator at the top of a food chain, with no natural predators.

Removal of an apex predator can trigger a massive ecological impact. No top predator, means too many herbivores, like Ibex and Blue sheep, which in turn overgraze the vegetation, which results in poor soil nutrient leading to further loss of soil binding plants. This makes the landscape vulnerable to soil erosion leading to further degradation of the habitat – a very damaging cycle. This series of ecological imbalances results in the virtual unravelling of the delicately balanced ecosystem structure – a snowballing effect called a ‘trophic cascade’. The consequences would be nothing short of catastrophic.

The survival of local people and their agro-pastoral way of life is directly dependant on the quality and richness of these Himalayan mountain habitats. On these biological and hydrological rich high altitude landscapes also depends the survival of millions downstream in the plains of South Asia. Yet there is no comprehensive assessment of the value that these snow leopard habitats provide to humanity. In fact, most of these rangelands are classified as deserts and wastelands – a major area of policy that needs to be addressed.