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An Unforgettable Sight

Updated: January 25, 2014 11:50 am

Despite 2013 being considered to be the most unfortunate year for Uttarakhand, owing to June catastrophe that struck the state, it certainly ended on a high note for the state, as a pair of snow leopard, falling in the rare and endangered species, was sighted for the first time at the Uttarkashi-based Gangotri National Park (GNP).

To make the moment even more special and etched in the history forever, the pictures of a male snow leopard and a female snow leopard were captured in the camera trap, placed at various places in the park. While the camera trap captured the male snow leopard on the night of November 18, the female snow leopard image was captured by camera on the morning of December 2. It has been more than three years since a total of six cameras were placed in the park.

Listed as endangered on the IUCN-World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species, the snow leopards have habitat in the higher reaches, at a height of 3,000-4,500m. In a survey conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) titled ‘Snow Leopard Conservation of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh’ had hinted at the existence of the felines called Panthera uncia or Uncia uncial in technical terms in the Uttarakashi district of the state. Though the disclosure in the study was made on the basis of hearsay of the locals, there was no photographic evidence to prove its existence in the Park, which shares its north-eastern boundary with Tibetan plateau.

Giving details of the major discovery, Gangotri National Park’s Deputy Director Gaurakh Nath Yadav said: “We finally got the photographic evidence, when cameras captured two snow leopards on the trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh, at height of about 10,500 feet. The chance of getting the rare cats’ photograph is higher in winters when they move to lower altitude for their prey. This is fabulous and our hunt for the existence of this majestic high altitude cat along with its favourite prey, the blue sheep, has paid rich dividends. The presence confirmed, we will now make extra efforts to conserve the animal. ”

“The conservation methods would include improving the habitat of the snow leopard and the blue sheep. Regular patrol in the park would be intensified and steps taken to ensure that the grassland does not degrade. Soil conservation measures like building check dams and preventing landslides would also be taken. The park is spread over 2300 square kilometre between 10,000 and 22,000 feet above sea level. The 10 sq km radius surrounding it has no human habitation. The park is thus an ideal habitat for the snow leopard,” said Yadav.

It may be mentioned here that the first sighting of the snow leopard, taken as the flagship species for the high Himalayas, in the GNP came within a month of India signing the Bishkek Declaration on conservation of snow leopards, who are much less in numbers than the tigers. A total of 13 countries in the world have adopted the Bishkek Declaration. Apart from India the countries that have adopted the declaration includes China, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In a report, it was mentioned that a handful of 7,500 snow leopards were available in the wild. Bishkek Declaration aims to provide protection to the 20 snow leopard landscapes that would be having an approximate 100 breeding adults by the year 2020 besides promoting sustainable development in those areas where the species live.

Incidentally, according to the rough estimates, India has approximately 200-500 snow leopards in the states including Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Even though the spotting at Gangotri National Park may be for the first time, but the state of Uttarakhand is not new to snow leopard, often referred to as ‘tharuwa’, ‘him bagh’ or ‘burfani chita’ in the local dialect, spotting. The first ever photographic evidence of the wild cat in the state was capture on April 10, 2011, by a team of the Dehradun based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the State Forest Department in the Malari region of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.

Declared as biosphere reserve under the Unesco’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme in 2004, the NDBR, which includes Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers National Park, has fifteen camera traps installed at various locations. Another snow leopard was spotted and captured on camera, the same year near Farkya village, located near an Indo-Tibetan Border Police post in the high Himalayas, in Chamoli district of the state.

Until the photographic evidence of spotting the snow leopard, its existence was monitored via carnivore sign surveys, based on evidences such as tracks and pug marks and remains of the animals eaten by them. Apart from this evidence, reports of sightings by either the forest personnel or local villagers in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Gangtori National Park and Govind National Park were taken into account.

Based on the studies by the experts, the Trans-Himalayan regions including, Malari-Lapthal, Badrinath-Mana, Nanda Devi, upper reaches of Valley of Flowers, Nelong Valley in Gangotri and few places in Uttarkashi, Pithoragarh and Rudraprayag districts of the state are believed to be habitats for the snow leopard.

Facing the threat of poaching for its skin and bones that fetch a high moolah in the international market, the snow leopard is considered as the top carnivore in the Himalayan ecosystem.

In 2006, Project Snow Leopard along the lines of Project Tiger was launched by the Centre in five Himalayan range states of India, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, where the spotting of snow leopard was declared.

Terming the spotting of snow leopard at the Gangotri National Park, nothing short of a miracle, Dr S Sathyakumar, a senior scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India, who provided training to researchers and field staff of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in the use of camera traps, said: “It’s a great news that finally we have got the photographic evidence of the snow leopard in the GNP. Now that we have concrete evidence of the wild cat, we can start working towards ensuring its peaceful and protected stay.”

Hinting at the possibility of the snow leopard venturing in the state from the Chinese side, the Dr Satyakumar said: “Though we cannot say for sure but there is a huge possibility of the animal venturing in the state from across the border. The north-eastern side of the park shares a boundary with the Tibetan plateau and since there is no demarcation of the border, there is a likelihood of it coming from across the border. As such India has very few snow deserts, an ideal habitat for the snow leopards, and these are long range animals that travel long distances over a period of time. But, it is a great achievement for the park to serve as a protective habitat for these animals.”

“Based on the photographic evidence and the reports from the staff and locals, we are expecting around 5-6 snow leopards in the GNP area,” he added.

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Enthralled over the spotting of two snow leopards for the first time in Gangotri National Park, the Wildlife Institute of India along with the Centre would be undertaking the DNA sampling of the animal by collecting its faeces. “Apart from setting up additional camera traps in the park, we would also be undertaking the DNA sampling to ascertain the number of snow leopards in the park and areas surrounding it. It would help us in drawing up the plan for their conservation and protection,” said Dr Satyakumar, a senior scientist and expert at the Dehradun based Wildlife Institute of India. The project would take a year to start and would be launched at the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in the first phase.

By Raman Ahooja From Dehradun

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