By Kulbushansingh Suryawanshi
An hour of hard climbing through knee deep snow, I reached the crest of the Runglong plateau. Endless Tibetan steppe grassland extended in front of me. I was panting and gasping for the thin air at an altitude of 4500m. Resting my weight on the ice-axe I was admiring the panoramic view when a silhouette on the snow caught my eye. A snow leopard calmly walked on the snow. It moved very gently, almost like an elf, hardly even leaving a foot print behind. It was perpendicular to my line of sight; and completely oblivious to my presence. It was about 200 m away from me. I immediately sank to my knees and reached for my binoculars.
Snow leopard is one of the most shy and elusive of all the large cat species of the world. Very little information is available on its ecology and behaviour. It was almost mythical until a few decade ago. Very few outsider have had the opportunity to see one of these majestic beasts in their natural environment of the high-altitudes of the Himalayas. I had this opportunity in the remote Trans-Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh called the Spiti Valley.
Suddenly the snow leopard stopped, crouched low and started staring at something very intently. From my position I could not see what it was looking at. I crawled to the crest of a small hump in the rolling plains, while avoiding being seen by the snow leopard. A group of about 30 bharal were grazing in a small grass patch at about 300 m from the snow leopard. Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) is a species of wild goat found in the Himalayan and Tibetan plateau region. It is one the most important prey species of the snow leopard throughout this region. The bharal, in appearance, is more similar to the hypothetical common ancestor of goats and sheep than either one of the two. Stockily built, with beautiful curled horns in males, they weigh about 55 kg. Males sometime reach well over 70 kg. Females have thin horns growing only a few inches in length.
The snow leopard was intently watching every move of the bharal. Crouching low it hid behind a clump of caragana (Caragana brevifolia) bushes. It completely merged with the ground and almost melted in front of my eyes. The local people have a legend that snow leopards can dissolve in the mountains and now I could completely understand what they meant by it. Although I knew exactly where the snow leopard was, I could not see its shape or outline or anything for that matter. I caught only an occasional glimpse when it moved. It was incredible to see an animal as large as the snow leopard hide to disappearance in a completely open plain. Using cover of small rocks and bushes the snow leopard started moving closer to the bharal. There was an unnerving silence all around.
And just as I was expecting the snow leopard to make another move closer to the bharal, the silence was disturbed by the loud honking of a domestic donkey. It came from behind me. The village livestock had moved closer towards us. Now about 500 m behind where I was hiding; there were over 50 donkey, 150 cows/cow-yak hybrids and 250 sheep and goat. They were being herded by two old men and 2 boys who were barely twelve years in age. At First, I though the donkey had noticed the snow leopard and were honking in alarm but then I confirmed through my binoculars that they were just running after each other in a playful fight. The snow leopard withdrew further into the rocks and kept a close eye on both the livestock and bharal.
Domestic livestock is an equal or better alternate prey for the snow leopard. Snow leopard can sneak close to livestock herds and when the herders are busy with their tea or chat they silently make off with one of the goats or sheep or sometimes even donkeys and cows. Snow leopards even attack the free-ranging horses and yaks, taking the young and the weak. Pastoralists from certain areas some times loose up to 18% of their livestock to snow leopard and other large predators such as the Tibetan wolves. This behaviour of the snow leopards gets them in conflict with the herders sometimes drawing serious retaliatory action from the pastoralists. This is one of the biggest challenges for snow leopard conservation throughout their distribution range in Central Asia.
The Trans-Himalayan region is extremely low in productivity; comparable to the Arctic or desert region. As a result, domestic livestock and wild herbivores, such as the bharal, compete for the limited fodder available in the rangelands. The entire region is covered by over two feet of snow throughout winter making food finding even more difficult for the wild herbivores. During this season the domestic livestock are fed on stored fodder by people. Thus, the wild herbivore populations are declining due to increase in domestic livestock numbers in the last couple of decade. This leads to an increased dependence of predators such as snow leopard and Tibetan wolf on domestic livestock causing intense conflict.
In the Trans-himalayan region, wildlife populations are spread across the landscape; the contiguity broken only by natural barriers such as high mountain ridges or rivers and more recently by the larger human settlements with large number of livestock. Even wild herbivores are spread across the entire landscape but are found in extremely low densities. The recently launched ‘Project Snow Leopard’ of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (2009) recognizes these problems and is focusing on conservation at a landscape scale rather than just the protected areas.
Here, I had the rare opportunity of seeing the snow leopard faced with the choice of hunting either a wild herbivore, the bharal, or the domestic livestock. Although just the presence of livestock would not tempt a snow leopard to take the risk, a hungry carnivore would not ignore the chance of picking a straying cattle. The snow leopard retreated further in to the rocks and I could not see it any more. I held my position for a long time. Before I realized, the evening was upon us. It got colder and it was too dark to see. The livestock had also retreated towards the village. The stalemate had been resolved. The livestock had been ignored over the bharal saving the herder and the snow leopard a lot of trouble.
Next morning I went back to the Rungalong plateau, the site of yesterdays snow leopard encounter. A little scanning of the landscape drew my attention to a flock of vultures. They led me to the place where the snow leopard had made the kill the previous night. A male bharal, about 4 years old, had fallen prey to the snow leopard. The vultures were tearing at whatever remained of the kill. The snow around the kill was sprayed in red; the pug-marks of the snow leopard told the story. There were few signs of struggle. The signs at the throat indicated a swift kill. There was still some portion of the kill left and I expected the leopard to return in the evening. To let the leopard feed without any disturbance I returned back to the village.
In the village, I met the livestock herder. I told him what I had seen the previous day. He was first disappointed with me because I had not warned him of the hidden danger. But then he added that snow leopards do not attack livestock very often in areas with good population of bharal. Runglong, the place where all this happened is adjacent to the village reserve of the Kibber village where the people with support from Nature Conservation Foundation had stopped grazing their livestock so that bharal population could revive. Dr. Charudutt Mishra of the Nature Conservation Foundation who first came to this region as a Ph.D. Student understood the problem of conflict between pastoralist and the snow leopard. He came up with this innovative solutions for this issue. He convinced the local villagers to set aside certain area of their rangeland to facilitate the recovery of wild herbivores such as the bharal. At the same time, along with the youth of the village he also started a livestock insurance scheme that compensated for the loss of livestock to wild carnivore at the current market price of the stock. Together these initiatives have helped increase populations of wild herbivores and change peoples attitudes towards wild carnivores in the Spiti Valley of Himachal pradesh and a few other places where this model has been replicated. Eight years since this initiative the region has seen over sixfold increase in bharal populations. Although how has this had an effect on the foraging pattern of the snow leopard is still scientifically unclear, but local people strongly believe that an increase in the bharal population has reduced livestock damage by snow leopards and wolves. The village reserve has also had a positive impact on conservation of other wildlife species of this region. The village reserve is today home to many animals such as the the bharal, Himalayan ibex, Tibetan wolf, snow leopard, stone marten, pale weasel and many bird species such as the golden eagle, lamergier and the Himalayan griffon. Also, encountering a snow leopard is much more common today than in earlier times while the killing of livestock by snow leopard seems to have reduced.
An edited version of this article was featured in the magazine “Frontline”. The article can be accessed here