India has an estimated 718 snow leopards, a first-ever national survey recently determined. Called the ghost of the mountains because it is rarely sighted and prefers to remain elusive, the country is home to around 10-15% of its global population.
Earlier estimates of the animal ranged from 400 to 700 in the country. The survey has rekindled hopes of its protection as global conservation agencies have listed it under the vulnerable category. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) intends to establish a dedicated Snow Leopard Cell and plans to conduct a periodic population estimation to assess threats and draw up an effective conservation approach.
Union minister of environment, forest and climate change Bhupender Yadav recently released a report on the status of snow leopards in India. “The Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India Program is the first-ever scientific exercise that reports a population of 718 in India,” Yadav said in a post on X.
The survey conducted between 2019 to 2023 covered 70% of the species habitat encompassing western and eastern Himalayas, which are mostly out of protected regions. The survey was conducted under the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI) programme. During this period, 241 unique snow leopards were photographed.
Surveyors then analysed leopard trails and other data to arrive at the figure of 718. WII coordinated the exercise with the support of states and conservation partners using a substantial network of camera traps. Before this survey, there was little information about snow leopards in the public domain.
Also, the species range in India was undefined. Earlier, surveys and research on the species were confined to smaller areas of Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Recent surveys have significantly increased the understanding of the conservators, providing preliminary information for 80% of the range (about 79,745 sq km), compared to 56% in 2016.
Based on data analysis, the estimated population in different states is as follows: Ladakh 477, Uttarakhand 124, Himachal Pradesh 51, Arunachal Pradesh 36, Sikkim 21, and Jammu and Kashmir 9. While the global conservation body IUCN has the snow leopard under its vulnerable category, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) lists it under Appendix I, which makes trading of the animal’s body parts like fur, bones and meat illegal in signatory countries.
Yadav also released the vision documents for the WII and the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). He outlined the goals to make WII a world class institute in the next one decade and the BSI’s pioneering exploration in sustainable utilisation of plant resources. The Snow Leopard Trust, a US-based conservation group, says the exact total number is not known but that “there may be as few as 3,920 and probably no more than 6,390 snow leopards” across 12 countries in Asia.