With an objective to save the existing population of critically-endangered snow leopard, the Jammu and Kashmir government has conducted maiden mapping of its habitat to evolve long-term conservation measures in the Valley.
Snow leopard was recently included by the union ministry of environment among 10 critically-endangered animals which are on the verge of extinction in Jammu and Kashmir. The snow leopard is mostly found in its bastion—the upper reaches of Ladakh. However, the latest study has found its prevalence in various areas of the mountainous state.
"We have for the first time documented potential distribution of snow leopard in Kashmir. This will help a long way to further initiate research and conservation initiatives," scientist and head, division of wildlife sciences, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences Kashmir, DrKhursheed Ahmad told Greater Kashmir.
The study was conducted by the division of wildlife sciences, SKUAST Kashmir in collaboration with the Wildlife Trust of India and department of wildlife protection, J&K under the pioneer study funded by the International Snow Leopard Trust.
DrKhurshid, who is also principal investigator of the project, said the research was initiated with an aim to establish the first baseline information on the status and distribution of snow leopard and its prey in Kashmir region.
"The study is a pre-requisite to plan effective strategies for long-term management and conservation of the snow leopard, its prey species and habitats," he said.
Snow leopard is one of the most elusive and rare wild animal species. The state of Jammu and Kashmir, with a potential habitat of 77,800-km2, is the largest continuous habitat for the snow leopard in India, occupying 60 percent of its national distribution range.
"Thus, the State needs to play a critical role in the conservation of this charismatic species in India. While there have been significant developments in research and conservation initiatives on snow leopard in Ladakh, basic understanding of the distribution of snow leopard and its prey remains poor for the Kashmir region," DrKhurshid added.
The study states that Gurez, Tulail and Sindh are high potential Snow Leopard distribution areas whereas Kajinag is a moderately potential snow leopard site.
The Gurez, Tulail and Sindh being connected to the Trans-Himalayas, country's best snow leopard area, further increase its importance in snow leopard conservation, it says.
"The major prey species for the snow leopard in Gurez-Tulail and Sindh are ibex, musk deer and marmots whereas Kajinag offers markhor and musk deer as the snow leopard prey," DrKhurshid said.
"Livestock grazing accompanied with herders and the herding dogs is happening across these Snow Leopard habitats, disturbing the prey species. It was surprising to see the contrasting effects of prevailing security situation on Snow Leopard. In areas such as Sindh, shepherds used to hire hunters to kill Snow Leopard for livestock depredation, which has reduced due to security concern. But in Gurez-Tulail which is close to Line of Control, construction of military bunkers and other infrastructure have disturbed the Snow Leopard habitat resulting in decline of endangered species," he said.
"Our preliminary survey confirmed the presence of snow leopard in Gurez-Tulail and Sindh valleys of the Kashmir region. Retaliatory killings of snow leopard due to livestock depredation, poaching, construction of security establishments in snow leopard habitats, habitat fragmentation are some of the major threats to snow leopard survival in Kashmir," said Riyaz Ahmad, project head Mountain Ungulate Project (J&K), Wildlife Trust of India
He said the absence of wildlife department in Gurez-Tulail encourages poaching. "Awareness and involvement of the major stake-holders such as local community, government forces and migratory herders (Bakarwals) will be crucial to save this rare species," he said.
The state government had in 2010 started work on an ambitious project to save the existing population of the endangered Snow Leopard in its bastion, Ladakh.
Regional Wildlife Warden, Rashid Naqash, said the baseline study on population distribution of snow leopard will help in formulating long-term conservation plans. "We can use the baseline study and incorporate it in ongoing and future conservation plans to save the existing population of snow leopards in the state," he added.