India’s first snow leopard survey puts population at just 718


A snow leopard in Ladakh, India

Wim van den Heever/naturepl.com

India’s first-ever survey of snow leopards has estimated that there are 718 of the big cats living in the country’s six mountainous regions.

That makes up about 10 to 15 per cent of the global population, which conservationists believe is between 3000 and 5400.

Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) range across vast areas of remote, mountainous landscapes, making them one of the most difficult predators to study.

The survey was conducted between 2019 and 2023 and led by the Wildlife Trust of India, which set up 1971 camera traps covering 120,000 square kilometers of habitat.

This represents over 70 per cent of potential snow leopard habitat across the Trans-Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. About 34 per cent of this area is under legal protection.

There were 241 cats photographed, but there was evidence of leopards — scat, hair and body markers — in about 100,000 square kilometres of the study area.

Snow leopards live across 12 Asian nations, but predominantly inhabit China and India’s rugged Himalaya mountains. The species was listed as endangered in 1972 and reclassified as vulnerable in 2017, but is still considered to be declining.

“The snow leopard is a beautiful and mysterious ghostly animal, but it’s far more than that,” says George Schaller, the biologist who took the first photo of a snow leopard in Pakistan in 1971. “It tends to symbolise an area and people then start paying attention not only to the snow leopards but to whole regions. So if you protect it, you protect an area for the benefit of all the wildlife and local communities.”

India’s goal is to use this baseline for a long-term population study that will improve monitoring, says Bhupender Yadav, India’s union cabinet minister for environment, forest and climate change. This is what officials did with Project Tiger in the 1970s, which created protections that buoyed tiger numbers.

“These regular assessments will offer valuable insights for identifying challenges, addressing threats and formulating effective conservation strategies,” says Yadav.

But some prominent local people fear the announcement could backfire. “This is one of the rarest animals and this number might change that perspective,” says Morup Namgail, a wildlife photographer who leads snow leopard tours in Ladakh. “People might think 718 sounds like a lot, so it may change the psychology of conservation.”

Namgail believes locals must lead the conservation work. “I, as a local, have a responsibility of keeping that number at the same level, if not making it higher, because we share the mountains,” he says. “They’re the most difficult animal in the world to study and we may never know how many there are. But we must try because protecting them protects us all.”

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