In the highlands of Ladakh, as snow began to melt at the end of a long winter, a cold April night saw an unusual occurrence — a single “shan” or snow leopard killing 49 goats and sheep in Meru village, about 70 km from here.
Around the same time, some 100-odd km away in Rumbak, in the Hemis National Park — the heart of the snow leopard’s habitat — 30-year-old Padma stepped out of her tent-shop next to a fierce glacial stream and pointed towards snowless mountain slopes.
Meanwhile, still farther away, in Matho village, 70-year-old Yeshitsewang and others had to dispatch about 2,000 goats, sheep and cows for grazing earlier than usual. Reason: The grazing pastures, from where the cattle would return after September, had shifted northwards and upwards.
These symptoms — snowless mountains, strong glacial rivers, livestock killings by snow leopards, tense man-animal relationships and shifting grasslands — are some of brutal realities of climate-change pushing the magnificent feline to the edge.
In Ladakh, these changes are happening at a rapid pace, and the region, its people and the iconic species are suffering the consequences.
“Tstoksti, Kharlu and Chazlung, none them hold snow any more. Snow leopards are often spotted around our village during winter, which is not so cold now,” said Padma, referring to the peaks around her tent in their local names. Villagers no longer knit the Goncha — the traditional warm Ladakhi dress, she added.
Growing up in Rumbak, situated some 4,500 metres above sea level, Padma has seen those peaks full of snow even in July-August; and though widely spotted, incidents of snow leopards killing domestic cattle were low.
But now, “not a single day passes without at least one killing and the conflict increases every season”, Rizjing Choktup, a craftsman in Ladakh’s Sku village, told this visiting IANS correspondent.
The most elusive and beautiful of all cats, the snow leopard, is smaller than the common leopard and weighs about 30-35 kg. Found at elevations of 3,000 to 5,500 metres, they are most affected by the rising temperatures and consequent changes in their habitat.
Though very little is known about their numbers, the current guesstimates peg their population at between 3,920 and 6,390 globally.
“The snow leopard symbolises a healthy high-mountain eco-system. Degradation of grasslands due to changing climate and various anthropogenic activities (human-induced pollution) is affecting their habitat and prey base,” Pankaj Chandan, Team Leader, Western Himalayas Landscape, Species and Landscape Programme, WWF-India, told IANS.
He recalled how in 2006 and again in 2013 a massive invasion of locusts — a species of grasshopper — and other pests destroyed the pasture lands of eastern Ladakh. The trend continues. “There is a need to keep track of such drastic changes,” Chandan added.
The primary prey of this endangered species, including the asiatic ibex, blue sheep and argali, is also depleting due to loss of their alpine habitats.
“Stripped of habitat and food, it is quite obvious that the snow leopards will haunt the villagers much more than earlier,” said Rigzin, Assistant Project Officer with WWF in Leh.
According to the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), between 1973 and 2008, an appreciable rise of one degree Celsius in the minimum temperature during winter and 0.5 degrees in peak summer was observed. “Progressive increase in warming at high elevation is already occurring at approximately three times the global average,” said a 2009 study.
“As the recent rate of global warming is much greater, the window for the snow leopard to adapt… will reduce from thousands of years to several decades,” according to a 2016 research paper published in Biological Conservation, an Elsevier journal.
The Himalayan and South Tibet plateau hold some 217,000 sq km of snow leopard habitat, which breaks into nine large blocks spread across India, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.
India alone has about 54,200 sq km of snow leopard habitat of which some 38,200 sq km is a potential high-emission area.
According to research, if the present rate of emissions continues, then India and China would lose 25 percent of their snow leopard habitat, while Bhutan would lose 55 percent and Nepal 40 percent.
It is estimated that under a high-emission scenario, the nine snow leopard habitat blocks across six countries would break up into 15 blocks that may leave two major chunks completely isolated.
As the grasslands and crop lands shift upwards, the interaction of herders and snow-leopards is increasing, testing the region’s tolerance over retaliatory killings.
“What’s the use of anger, since the cattle have already been killed. But at times it’s very difficult to convince others to let it go,” said Yeshitsewang of Matho village, whose cows and sheep were hunted by a snow leopard.
She showed this correspondent a newly-made corral — a snow leopard-proof shelter for cattle. About 70 such corrals, some large enough to hold over 200 animals, have been constructed by WWF across Ladakh, an attempt to keep the mountain community happy.
In India, with its habitat set to become smaller, more human-snow leopard conflict appears inevitable.
(Kushagra Dixit was in Ladakh to observe climate change. This story has been published with support from WWF-India Young Climate Media Fellowship Program 2017)