ByÂ Rajaram Suresh:
The word ‘teeming’ no longer seems an adequate adjective to describe biodiversity, especially in the snow-clad peaks of the infinite Himalayas. The Panthera uncia, more commonly called the Snow Leopard, is one of the most majestic beasts that adorn the higher altitudes of the famous mountain range. Stealthy in nature, fierce in battle and majestic in look, the Snow Leopard is both dreaded and awed by humans and animals alike. Not surprisingly, like all beautiful species, sighting a snow leopard — even in its natural habitat — is very rare, for more reasons than one.
Snow Leopards are medium-sized cats, commonly sighted in steep terrains with rugged ravines. They live in altitudes ranging from 3000 to 4500 metres. Camouflaged in the snowy background, the leopard is a lethal predator to any unsuspecting prey wandering aimlessly in the open. With the ability to kill animals that are up to three times their weight, the leopard is feared by most animals, big or small. However, the reproducible population of Snow Leopards has dwindled to below 2500 in the whole world, making their species critically endangered, and in dire need of rapid revitalization.
The natural dearth of Snow Leopards is not the sole threat towards endangerment . The snow leopards are extensively poached for their pelts and skin. That their body parts have medicinal properties only increases illegal poaching. Understandably, but regrettably, the locals of hilly areas are forced to retaliate against these beasts in the interest of their livestock and grazing lands, as there is no question of simultaneous co-existence of the two. As humans make further inroads into its natural habitats, the area of grazing lands and the number of wild sheep — its major prey — have come down drastically. The snow leopards have now been cornered into higher altitudes and inhospitable habitats because of these very factors, each reinforcing the other.
Even though Snow Leopards run the risk of extinction, there doesn’t seem to be enough protective measures employed thus far. The WWF and the Snow Leopard Conservancy — India Trust (SFC-IT) have been actively involved in efforts to protect and cordon the leopards from humans, whilst remaining uncompromising on invading their habitat. Meanwhile, there hasn’t quite been a concerted effort from the government’s side, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Haryana. Whether it is due to the inability to draw the ‘invisible line’ between humans and the leopards, or the absence of a well-planned mission and a skilled team, or because wildlife doesn’t feature on the top half of our priority list, it is unclear.
Some of the measures that could be taken as an immediate response to the status quo are:
1. Mapping the leopard population — this is a challenging task, given their inhospitable habitats. Once done, this will serve as an excellent reference for any future plan of action taken.
2. Sensitizing the local public on the importance of wildlife — this is currently being attempted by the NGOs and WWF, with lukewarm success. However, effective dissemination of information will be possible only if the government takes the issue in its hands, whist aided by wildlife organizations and NGOs.
3. Arming the local herders with tranquilizer guns and stationing a skilled team in the area’s vicinity to transport the animal back to its natural habitat before the drug wears off.
4. Doling stricter punishments and heavier fines for poachers and killers of snow leopards.
5. Periodic inspections into mountain peaks to check for animal illnesses and injuries — with the availability of Snow Leopard mapping, and very few leopards to take care of, this has a bright chance of being implemented.
Sadly, the snow leopard is just one of the 47 critically endangered species in India which requires our immediate attention. The government of India should wake up and turn their attention to this emergency, and soon. The gravity of this issue is not unlike that of the falling rupee, or multi-crore scams. Hence, all that can be done needs to be done as soon as possible. Also, there is an urgent need to change the common man’s outlook towards wildlife conservation, especially for species that are endangered. These species are as much of a resident of India as we are, and their existence is what gives our country its identity — a country with a rich culture and enviable wildlife.