Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Project: Grey Ghost

Pankaj Sekhsaria


Destruction of habitat, poaching and retaliatory killings by shepherds have pushed the survival of the snow leopard to the brink. But with the launching of Project Snow Leopard, there is hope.

Thick grey coloured fur that is marked with rosettes and broken spot markings keeps it warm and helps it blendeasily with the vast mountain-scape

The upper reaches of the Himalayas have some of the most rugged and hostile regions on the surface of the earth. Mountain ridges, rocky outcrops and inhospitable expanses dominate the landscape that is characterised by extreme cold and harsh conditions. Life is tough and only the best can survive. And one among the best here is an incredibly beautiful creature, the snow leopard - an animal who many know as the "Grey Ghost of the Mountains".

Big question: Who’s invading my territory? Photo: AFP

Camouflaged :At the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, Himachal Pradesh. Photo : NCF, Mysore

There are many striking features about this animal. Thick grey coloured fur that is marked with rosettes and broken spot markings keeps it warm and helps it blend easily with the vast mountain-scape; short limbs and powerful paws help it manoeuvre and hunt efficiently and a long tail that the animal uses to keep its nose warm and also for balancing itself on the steep terrain. At about a metre in length, the snow leopard's tail is about as much as the rest of the animal's body.

Photo: Steve Tracy (Courtesy SLT, Seattle)

My long tail : Keeps my nose warm and also helps balancing on steep terrain.

Lurking danger

The snow leopard is a very well adapted apex predator of its ecosystem, but all is not well for this unique animal. Destruction of its habitat, poaching for its beautiful fur coat and retaliatory killings by shepherds who lose their cattle to it are rapidly pushing it to the edge. Though the habitat of the snow leopard is spread over about two million sq. km in Central Asia and the Himalayan region, their total numbers worldwide are estimated to be only between 5000 and 7000 animals.

India is one of the important countries for the snow leopard and it is estimated that we have between 200 to 600 animals that are found in the five range states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. There have been a number of researchers and organisations that have been working in India to ensure the well-being of these threatened animals. Interesting work has been on to study its behaviour, to understand the major threats and importantly to engage with local communities to make them partners in snow leopard conservation efforts through environment education, ecotourism initiatives and methods to reduce livestock loss.

It’s cool : A three-year old female snow leopard reclines in fresh snow. Photo: AP

There has also been a long-standing demand that the Government of India take a holistic view of the situation and institute a programme that approaches snow leopard conservation in an integrated manner. After many false starts, it seems now, this is finally beginning to happen. In January 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) announced the launching of Project Snow Leopard, an initiative for strengthening wildlife conservation in the Himalayan high altitude regions in general and for the `grey ghost' in particular. It will be treated on a par with other flagship programmes like the Project Tiger and Project Elephant and executed in collaboration with two of India's premier wildlife research organisations, the Dehradun based Wildlife Institute of India and Mysore based Nature Conservation Foundation. An important dimension is the acceptance that in snow leopard country wildlife presence overlaps in a major way with human use and conservation will be successful only if local communities are made partners in the effort.

The government has also promised substantial financial resources and while this is a good starting point, it is very important that the project is taken forward well. The grey ghost that walks, may otherwise become just memories and images

Life is tough : Survival is the issue. Photo: Milan Trykar. (Courtesy SLT, Seattle)

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