Save snow leopards to save Brahmaputra

The Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) estimates the total population of this important indicator species in the high altitudes of the Himalaya at 718 individuals.
Save snow leopards to save Brahmaputra

 The Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) estimates the total population of this important indicator species in the high altitudes of the Himalaya at 718 individuals. It is reassuring to know that the assessment reveals the presence of 36 snow leopards in Arunachal Pradesh, which is one of the snow leopard range states. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF India), the presence of snow leopards is a critical indicator of the health of the Himalayan ecosystem, including the Himalayan rivers that are fed by glaciers. Conservation of the species classified as “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List is critical to the conservation of the Brahmaputra, the lifeline of Assam, as well as other Himalayan rivers and the ecosystem of these river basins. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) carried out this first-ever scientific exercise to estimate the population of snow leopards in the country in collaboration with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru, and WWF-India. The distribution of the estimated populations of snow leopards in five other ranges is: Ladakh (477), Uttarakhand (124), Himachal Pradesh (51), Sikkim (21), and Jammu and Kashmir (9). The SPAI covered over 70% of the potential snow leopard range in the country, across the trans-Himalayan region. The four-year-long exercise carried out from 2019 to 2023 involved two steps. The first step involved evaluating snow leopard spatial distribution, which included assessing the spatial distribution through an occupancy-based sampling approach in the potential distribution range. In the second step, snow leopard abundance was estimated using camera traps in each identified stratified region, according to an official release. During the exercise, 13,450 km of trails were surveyed for recording snow leopard signs, while camera traps were deployed at 1,971 locations for 180,000 trap nights, and a total of 241 unique snow leopards were photographed. This speaks volumes about the gigantic challenges that had to be overcome to arrive at a credible population estimate, for which the scientific community involved in the exercise, including forest and wildlife staff, researchers, and volunteers, deserves commendation by all. The estimation of the snow leopard population in Arunachal Pradesh is to be seen in conjunction with the status of the species in Bhutan to get a comprehensive indication of the health of the Himalayan ecosystem in the Brahmaputra Basin. The National Snow Leopard Survey Report 2022-2023, titled “Snow Leopard Status in Bhutan,” reveals the presence of 134 individuals in the Himalayan Kingdom. Collaboration between India and Bhutan for strengthening scientific monitoring of snow leopards will go a long way in assessing the health of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries spread in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. Receding snowline is considered a prime threat to the habitat of snow leopards as it leads to a loss of vegetation and a resultant decline in the population of the prey species. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already pressed the alarm bell that river runoff in snow-dominated and glacier-fed river basins will change further in amount and seasonality in response to projected snow cover and glacier decline, with negative impacts on agriculture, hydropower, and water quality in some regions. Official reports also reveal that glaciers feeding the Brahmaputra and the Ganga are melting at a faster rate as compared to glaciers in the Karakoram region. The SPAI report recommends the establishment of a dedicated Snow Leopard Cell at WII under the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Climate Change, with a primary focus on long-term population monitoring supported by well-structured study designs and consistent field surveys. The proposed cell being provided adequate funding and logistic support by the Ministry as well as by range states is crucial for achieving the stated objective. The report rightly emphasises that such regular assessments will offer valuable insights for identifying challenges, addressing threats, and formulating effective conservation strategies. Addressing the identified threats will have the double benefit of mitigating conservation threats to the Himalayan River ecosystem for the sustainability of life and livelihood in the river basins. There is no room for complacency over the SPAI estimation of Snow Leopard. A UNESCO study reminded the global community that one-third of iconic glacier sites are set to disappear by 2050 due to global warming from carbon emissions. Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, triggering a catastrophic flood in the Teesta River in Sikkim last year, indicated the magnitude of disasters in the Himalayan River and their tributaries that will precede glacier sites completely disappearing. The survey and conservation of snow leopards, therefore, cannot be seen as an isolation of global warming on account of carbon emissions and should be considered an important climate change mitigation measure. In this backdrop, the SPAI report has great significance, not just for the range states of Snow Leopard but also for other states in the Himalayan River basin. Monitoring of glacial lakes and rivers in the Himalayan range of Arunachal Pradesh, along with a survey of snow leopards, needs a stronger policy push.

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