Dr Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi is a scientist with NCF, and is also the India Programme Director of the Snow Leopard Trust. Also known as Kullu, he has studied the winter feeding behaviour of bharal (blue sheep), an important snow leopard prey species. “Snow leopards do eat a lot of livestock but their population increases if there is adequate wild prey i.e. bharal. Snow leopards need wild prey for their survival. They will, of course, kill livestock as and when they encounter them, but livestock alone cannot support snow leopards.”
Suryawanshi has helped Himachal Pradesh’s forest department launch Project Snow Leopard in 2009 — a high-profile, five-year project along the lines of Project Tiger. This was the first project to recognise and articulate that protected areas (national parks and wildlife sanctuaries) are not sufficient to conserve snow leopard and its prey species. It acknowledged that in the Himalayan and the Trans-Himalayan regions, wildlife is spread across the landscape and that successful conservation of these species requires working with local pastoral people to conserve these species outside protected areas. “I met and discussed with local pastoral people from 25 villages in the Upper Spiti Region of Himachal Pradesh to understand what could be done to promote conservation of wildlife alongside the development of local people. This approach was (and still is) very novel in wildlife conservation which is led by the state,” says Kullu.
With the project came the realisation that snow leopards in the Himalayan regions have a severe impact on herders’ livestock population — an integral part of their livelihoods. In response to the loss of their livestock, these herders often persecute the carnivores. “Snow leopards kill a lot of livestock and in some places up to 70 per cent of their diet constitutes livestock,” says the 31-year-old. This prompted Kullu to identify, as part of his doctoral studies, the causes of livestock predation by snow leopards and find ways to minimise this. “It helped me discern the intricacies of the tangled issue of livestock, snow leopards and the bharal in the Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh as well as in Mongolia’s Gobi desert,” says Kullu.