Nobody knows how many leopards there are in the wild not even Chandrutt Mishra, the world’s foremost expert on the big cat, and he’s been studying them for 25 years. The spotted grey feline that lives on the snowcapped mountains of Asia’s is so elusive that a single photograph taken in 1970 circulated for two decades.
Mishra had his first sighting in 2006, a decade after he began working in the field. “After crossing Parliament the Parilubgbiriver that drains into the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, we were climbing up steep gorge. Each time I halted to catch my breath, I scanned the opposite slope. Suddenly, what I thought was a rock come alive,” says Mishra, 51, “It was a sublime. The chill from the ice-cold river disappeared. The pain from taking the fall in the water was forgotten.”
Despite their name and habitat, snow leopards avoid snow when they can, he added. “The Mopa people of Arunachal Pradesh have a much more appropriate name for them: Tasken, leopard of the rocks.”
There are an estimated 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. “But these are just guests,” Mishra says. The animal is so shy and elusive, its habitats so hard to access, that there has never been a comprehensive count ( one of the things Mishra is now working to change across 12 countries).
What is certain is that this is an at-risk species. In addition to the natural challenges it faces, it has been classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of nature (IUCN). As with most species, the reasons are interlinked — overgrazing by livestock has caused population of the snow leopard’s natural prey to dwindle, forcing it to snatch livestock from local human settlements, which has prompted scores of retaliatory killings over decades. Meanwhile, its habitat is changing too, as a result of climate crisis and current human activity (projects even in its remote mountain habitats includes mines and roads).
In 1996, when Mishra first visited the spiti valley for doctoral research in ecology and natural resource conservation, a snow leopard had recently entered the village of Kibber and killed some heads of livestock. Locals told him a graphic tale of how they killed a leopard. What was agonizing to hear, Mishra adds, was that the visitors then lined up to beat the carcass and curse it for causing them so much hardship.
That’s the first half of a story that Mishra often tells. The second half is set 17 years later, and a happier ending. “In 2019, an old snow leopard fell into a gorge and died”, Mishra says. “This time around, the people the Kibber retrieved the carcass and cremated it with full Buddhist rites, and auspicious scarf reserved for several guests”.
For his role in driving this change, Misra won his first Whitley Award, in 2005. Last week he won his second.
That first one was for setting up India’s first community—run livestock insurance programme, in Sipti. Launched in 2002 and still highly successful, it insures each head of livestock for a certain sum, which paid out in case of a snow—leopard attack.
Under the scheme, herders must agree to let snow-leopard attack take the livestock it has killed, so it doesn’t unduly kill more; and they must commit to preserve small swathes of grassland as grazing ground for its natural prey, which are wild sheep and the ibex.
The programme is sustained through grants and the funds each such as the Whitley prize of Rs. 95 lakhs and has expanded over the years to several other countries with snow-leopard habitats, including Mongolia, Pakistan and China. (IPA Service)
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