The ghost of the mountains, the Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) is an enigmatic species to study. Their high altitude home, marked by precipitous terrain and hostile temperatures, makes it especially challenging to learn more about this endangered feline. Snow Leopards are thought to inhabit around 2 million sq.km of area across the Central and South Asian mountains – the Indian Himalaya is of their most important abodes. 

The Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), an effort to unite snow leopard range country governments, nongovernmental- and inter-governmental organisations, local communities, and the private sector for Snow Leopard conservation, estimates that the snow leopard population is between 3,920 to 6,000. The uncertainty is mainly due to knowledge gaps from large and rather inaccessible areas across the species’ range.

Consider this: all our knowledge about Snow Leopards comes from under 2 per cent of this immense area, the majority of which is protected area. But only a fraction of the protected areas across the Snow Leopard’s global range are large enough to support more than one Snow Leopard – studies have shown that, on average, a Snow Leopard needs around 125-250 sq.km of area to survive! 

To better understand and conserve the elusive Snow Leopard, we will have to move beyond the minuscule areas that our work has been concentrated in so far, into newer non-protected areas, which are much larger and perhaps hold more Snow Leopards.

After all, across most of the Snow Leopard’s range, the cats share space and resources with large numbers of agro-pastoralist communities that are dependent on the mountain ecosystem for resources such as pasture for their livestock. Unlike what most people tend to assume, Snow Leopards rarely live in pristine habitats, away from the sight and impact of humans. Man and animal often come into conflict: Snow Leopards opportunistically predate livestock, and people, struck by the economic and emotional cost of losing their herds, retaliate by killing Snow Leopards. One of those non-protected areas is Upper Kinnaur. 

Click through the photostory (above) and learn more about my work there.