As climate change forces snow leopards to lower altitudes, they encounter new threats, including from common leopards moving upwards for the same reason
Sudden bouts of heavy snowfall in the Himalayas – an impact of climate change – are forcing the elusive snow leopard to lower altitudes, where it meets other animals moving up the slopes due to climate change, including the common leopard. Conservationists worry this will increase the vulnerability of the endangered snow leopard, already under pressure from habitat destruction and poaching.
Forest department officials in Sikkim have photographed snow leopards and common leopards from the same camera trap. Hundreds of kilometres to the west in Uttarakhand – another Indian state in the Himalayas – residents are now seeing snow leopards roam close to their villages in winters, when most human residents go further downhill. Similar incidents have been reported from northern Pakistan.
Madhavendra Singh is among the few residents who stay through the winter in Harsil – a village 2,745 metres above the sea level on the way to the busy summer pilgrimage spot Gangotri, the source of the Ganga. “It snowed a lot in the winter of 2018,” he said. “A snow leopard was photographed in Jhala village near Uttarkashi, which at 2,200 metres is lower than Harsil. Snow leopards were spotted at lower altitudes in the winter of 2019 as well.” The animal usually stays between the top of the tree line at about 3,000 metres and the glacier region around 6,000 metres.
“Usually, snow leopards stay hidden. Who knows, they may be roaming around our villages when most of the people move downhill in winter,” Singh added. “We hadn’t paid any attention to this earlier.”
Sandeep Kumar, divisional forest officer at Uttarkashi – the big town in the region – agreed that locals are now more curious about snow leopards.
“Snow leopards descend below 3,000 metres when it snows heavily in winter,” Kumar told The Third Pole. “Their prey – bharal (blue sheep), musk deer, Himalayan thar, ibex – move downhill in search of food. Between last November and February, a herd of Bharal was seen 50 kilometres downhill of Gangotri National Park, in the direction of Uttarkashi. If the Bharal are there, snow leopards must be there as well.”
Big range, small number
Snow leopards have a huge range all over the Hindu Kush Himalayas and Central Asia. The countries that share their range are Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But in the extremely tough world of cliffs and icy ravines where they live, their numbers are small. Estimates vary between 3,500 and 7,000. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the snow leopard as “vulnerable”. That vulnerability has increased as the snow leopard range starts to overlap with that of the common leopard due to climate change – they have the same prey base.
There are around 516 snow leopards in India, according to S. Sathyakumar, a scientist at the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII). This includes 285 in Jammu and Kashmir, 90 in Himachal Pradesh, 86 in Uttarakhand, 13 in Sikkim and 42 in Arunachal Pradesh. India’s environment ministry is expected to compete an ongoing population estimate by the end of 2022.
Effect of climate change
In Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, the central environment ministry and the UN Development Programme are running a Secure Himalaya project to conserve biodiversity and local livelihoods; protecting snow leopards is a part of the project.
Aparna Pandey, the Uttarakhand project officer, told The Third Pole, “The sightings of snow leopards at lower altitudes near Harsil and in Sikkim mean climate change is affecting their habitat. They are moving downhill in search of food and water.”
Annual average surface temperature across the Himalayan region has already risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius from the pre-industrial age, according to the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative. This is far higher than the average global rise of a little over 1C. On the Tibetan Plateau, the average temperature has risen by as much as 3C in this period, according to the Snow Leopard Trust.
By raising the temperature, climate change is also affecting rainfall and snowfall patterns everywhere. Sudden bouts of heavy snowfall in the Himalayas is part of that effect.
The life cycle of flowers and fruits in the Himalayas is also changing due to higher temperatures, said Sathyakumar. “Flowers that used to bloom in May are now blooming in April. Studying this for the last 20 years, we have found that animals dependent on these plants are changing their activities as well. If the snow leopards’ prey base shifts downwards, they will do the same.”
The WWF has also reported that road building and mining in the high Himalayas are affecting snow leopard habitat. A 2015 report by WWF India said climate change was altering vegetation patterns in the high Himalayas, and the new plants and grasses emerging were not the favoured food of the sheep, goat and antelope species that are hunted by snow leopards. On top of that, the air was getting drier and seasonal water availability was changing because glaciers were melting earlier in the year. The report concluded that all this may reduce snow leopard habitat by a third if current trends continue.
Scientists fear snow leopard habitat may have contracted by around 20% already.
As snow leopards move to slightly lower altitudes, the common leopard (whose habitats include forests and woodlands at lower elevations) is moving upwards, said Sandeep Kumar, the forester at Uttarkashi. “It’s not a surprise to see snow leopards below 3,000 metres in winter. I have also seen common leopards at an altitude of 3,500 metres.”
Rishi Kumar Sharma of WWF India said, “This is due to the tree line moving upwards as the temperature increases. Snow leopards and common leopards will encounter each other. This will create more problems for snow leopards, because climate change will contract its habitat. The two animals are of similar size, have similar feeding habits. They may become competitors in future, as climate change expands the habitat of the common leopard while it contracts the habitat of the snow leopard.”
All the prey of snow leopards are already having to cope with shrinking habitats while they are also victims of poaching, Sharma added. “That is bound to affect the snow leopard. The upper Himalayan region has not been studied a lot. We don’t have good-quality data on which to base conservation policies.” The animal has been studied more closely in Nepal than in other countries and so there is a case for more cooperation between researchers.
There have been national and international efforts to save the snow leopard, some of which have been of great help to local residents as well.
This August, the Uttarakhand government announced that it would set up India’s first snow leopard conservation centre near Uttarkashi. The state government hopes this will give a boost to winter tourism – many snow leopard enthusiasts visit Himachal Pradesh every winter, while the animal is a part of ecotourism efforts in Ladakh.
There was much excitement in Himachal Pradesh when a snow leopard cub was rescued from a trap and returned to the wild after a few weeks this summer. Though it is not yet known if the cub survived, the incident is expected to boost snow leopard tourism.
Varsha Singh is a journalist based in Dehradun, Uttarakhand.