Kinnaur is a mountainous area immediately to the Southeast of Spiti, our focal landscape in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Our team has long considered the area to be a good potential snow leopard habitat, but the area had never been surveyed systematically. This spring, we partnered with the Kinnaur Forest Division, Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, to set up 31 camera traps for an initial survey of Kinnaur’s wildlife. What we found was quite exciting!
“We recorded snow leopards in 14 of our cameras. We also found 11 other mammal species including blue sheep, ibex, brown bear, leopard cat and jungle cat”, says Ajay Bijoor, a conservationist and important member of our team, based at our Indian partner, NCF.
“Our team also carried out so-called double observer surveys to get an idea of the population of mountain ungulates, the wild prey of snow leopards. These surveys showed a healthy population of blue sheep in several blocks, which bodes well for the area’s snow leopard population”, Ajay explains.
An in-depth analysis of the camera trap images will be conducted in the coming months. The team hopes to have a first estimate of Kinnaur’s snow leopard population by the summer.
Part of Global Effort to Count Snow Leopards
This pilot survey in Kinnaur is part of the Snow Leopard Trust’s concerted effort to significantly improve our ability to estimate snow leopard populations across the cat’s range. Less than 2% of the global range has ever been surveyed scientifically, and we still know very little about the true conservation status of this endangered cat. In the next 5 years, our goal is to be able to survey at least 10%, but ideally up to 20% of the range, to provide a solid scientific basis for a global snow leopard population estimate.
“It is critical to be able to understand whether snow leopard populations are stable, increasing, or decreasing. A robust estimate of the snow leopard population is the key to making good conservation decisions, both for scientists and politicians”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director.
This effort comes with significant challenges: First, we’ll need lots of camera traps, and second, a large number of well-trained field staff to work with them.
“Collaborating with forest departments, wildlife rangers, and other government officials in snow leopard habitat can help solve the staffing challenge, so we’re making it a priority to build capacity for surveying wildlife and working with camera traps whenever we have an opportunity”, says Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, the Snow Leopard Trust’s India Program Director.
“For instance, as part of the survey effort in Kinnaur, our team conducted a capacity-building workshop at the Kinnaur Forest Division office at Reckong Peo for the Forest Department staff. This workshop provided hands-on training on camera trapping methods and double observer survey techniques.”
Dr. Naresh Kumar Lath, District Commissioner (DC), Kinnaur, and Mr. Angel Chauhan, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Kinnaur presided over the workshop, and about 40 members from the Forest Department attended, including range officers, block officers, forest guards, and beat guards.
The techniques used for the population estimation work intrigued the forest officials, and they expressed their support and willingness to participate in future estimation work.