In a first, four snow leopards captured on camera in the Chenab Valley’s Kishtwar National Park

The Park is a vital corridor and connects snow leopard populations, enabling gene flow, say researchers

A team of four scientists from the University of Kashmir, Srinagar and the National Development Foundation, Jammu have captured four snow leopards (Panthera uncia) on camera in Kishtwar High Altitude National Park of the Union territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir’s Chenab Valley region.

This is a significant development for snow leopard conservation in India, home to two per cent of the global range of the snow leopard. The least well-known large felid is an apex predator and flagship species of High Mountain Asia.

India is home to 718 snow leopards, most of whom live in areas that are not under legal protection, according to findings released by the Centre in January this year.

According to those who carried out the current study, “The occupancy and abundance of the snow leopard is poorly known across its range in India. Population surveys in the Western Himalayas have been limited to Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.” 

The iconic ‘grey ghost of the mountains’ has been reported from Gurez and Sonamarg, in the upper Baltal-Zojila region, in the Kargil range and in the areas adjacent to the north-eastern and south-eastern boundary of Kishtwar that connect with the Zanskar range in the UT of Ladakh.

“However, its occurrence remains uncertain in the majority of Kashmir, including in protected areas,” the scientists added.

Camera captures

The researchers worked in some extremely tough terrain. The 2,191 sq km Kishtwar High Altitude National Park covers an altitude range of 1,800-6,000 metres (m) above the Chenab river and below the Nagin Sheer glacier.

The Park is located in the Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir. Kishtwar, along with Doda and Ramban, forms the Chenab Valley region of the UT.

Above a height of 4,300 m, the protected area becomes inaccessible because of the rugged terrain and extreme weather. Besides the snow leopard, it is also home to Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), Himalayan musk deer (Moschus leucogaster) and wolves.

The team divided the study area into a grid of 5 × 5 km cells and deployed 40 camera traps at 57 locations in a total of 18 grid cells for one year (May 2022-June 2023).

Read India has 718 snow leopards; most of them live in unprotected areas: Centre

The traps were deployed on natural trails, trail junctions, ridge lines and locations of probable animal use. This was done to maximise the probability of detecting animals.

The cameras were checked at least once every month except during winter in order to see to it that they were functioning and to replace batteries and memory cards.

The northern, north-eastern, eastern and south-eastern parts of the Park are covered by glaciers and inaccessible. Thus, the cameras were mostly limited to the southern, south-western and central areas of the Park.

“During 6,623 trap-nights we obtained photographs of two individual snow leopards in a single frame on 19 September 2022 at 23.03 in the Kiyar catchment of the Dacchan range at 3,280 m. This was the first photographic evidence of the species in Kishtwar High Altitude National Park,” the researchers wrote.

They obtained seven more photographs of snow leopards in three other grid cells, in the Kiyar and Nanth catchments of the Dacchan range and the Renai catchment of the Marwah range.

They were able to conclude that the leopards captured in the photos were, in fact, four distinct individuals. This was on the basis of the markings on their coats which are unique for every animal, just as finger prints in a human.

“The eight captures were at 3,004-3,878 m altitude. This is mostly an arid alpine region above the treeline, with steep and rugged terrain flanked by high-altitude pastures of junipers, grasses and legumes on rolling hills,” the study said.

The traps also revealed that the Park is home to potential snow leopard prey like long-tailed marmot (Marmota caudate) and pika (Ochotona) as well as carnivores like Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos), Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula) and mountain weasel (Mustela altaica).

However, the researchers also found significant anthropogenic pressure in the location through livestock grazing at higher elevations in the Kibber, Kiyar, Nanth and Renai catchments.

“Nearly 3,000 graziers and nomadic herders visit the alpine pastures in the Marwah range each year, with 150,000 livestock. Overstocking is therefore a threat to both the habitat and the wild ungulate prey of the snow leopard through competition for pasture,” the team wrote.

They added that this could lead to human-wildlife conflict and drive the snow leopard and its prey into suboptimal areas, thus exposing them to other threats.

The leopards and ungulates avoid livestock-grazing areas during summer (May-August). The researchers reached this conclusion as these species were not detected during these months.

The team said their findings and camera captures were proof that the Park is potential snow leopard habitat. It connects three Himalayan landscapes: the greater Himalayas of Jammu and Kashmir, the trans-Himalayas of Ladakh (through Zanskar) and the lesser Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh.

The Park is strategically located and its high passes connect snow leopard populations in the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan regions to the global snow leopard range. This is important as the Park thus acts as a corridor and enables gene flow, vital for healthy populations.

“We recommend that a comprehensive study is conducted over the entire Kishtwar landscape (including the Paddar and Wadwan valleys) to estimate the occupancy and abundance, and demography and movement patterns of snow leopards and their prey,” said the scientists.

They also urged an evaluation of snow leopard interactions with pastoral communities as well as threats to the conservation and management of the region.

First photographic record of the snow leopard Panthera uncia in Kishtwar High Altitude National Park, Jammu and Kashmir, India was published in the journal Oryx on May 9, 2024.

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