Today marks the first year of the National Protocol on Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI). Snow leopard, also known as the “ghost of the mountains” is an elusive carnivore found in the high altitude of four states and two union territories including states including Jammu, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. It covers an area over 100,000 sq km. India accounts for 5% of the global Snow Leopard population. The protocol was evolved by the cooperation between the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC), Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, and Nature Conservation Foundation located in Mysuru.
This protocol was evolved from the international efforts to develop a global protocol for the Population Assessment of World’s Snow Leopards (PAWS) under the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) consisting of twelve countries. The above-mentioned states and union territories are now estimating the distribution and population of the Snow Leopards using SPAI along with the existing initiatives like the Project Snow Leopard and SECURE Himalaya (a joint initiative with the Indian government, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF)) and international program GSLEP. A majority of snow leopard habitat in India is located along the international borders, Ministry of Defence and local populace of the bordering areas are also involved. India plans to formally publish the Snow Leopard population numbers by 2025.
Before SPAI, the snow leopard populations studies were conducted through camera trapping and genetic sampling. Some of the studies are published and some have not been.
As per SPAI, areas between 500 sq km to 2,000 sq km can typically be sampled with 30-50 camera traps or surveyed for collection of genetic data. This is being done for Snow Leopard dense areas. Indian has identified three large landscapes including Hemis-Spiti across Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh; Nanda Devi – Gangotri in Uttarakhand; and Khangchendzonga – Tawang across Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
Along with Snow Leopards, SPAI formally includes the counting of the prey too. The prey includes Blue Sheep or Pseudois Nayaur, Ibex or Capra Sibirica, Argali or Ovis Ammon and others.
The other countries with Snow Leopard population include Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India has been a party to GSLEP since 2013.