EXCLUSIVE: International Snow Leopard Day 2021: Experts share interesting facts about the mysterious cat
If we happen to ask you which is the closest species to a snow leopard? Your answer, most probably, will be a leopard, of course. But what if we tell you that it’s not? And that it’s actually closer to a tiger, unlike the name suggests. Surprising enough? There is more. They are the only cats in the Panthera species that cannot roar. Why, you ask?
“It is because of the different physiology of their throats. The non-aggressive sound that they make is called a chuff,” Rohit Rattan, Associate Coordinator, Western Himalayas Programme, WWF India, tells you.
Also, this big cat is extremely adaptable as they are found usually between 10000 to 20000 feet above the sea level. “One of the lesser-known facts of the snow leopard is that each snow leopard can have about 100 sq km area as its territory to hunt and look out for suitable mates,” Janaki Mohanachandran, Senior Project Officer, Snow Leopard Program, WWF India, tells you.
Now that you know that the cat is found on high slopes, you must be wondering how it does not fall while jumping from here to there. The magic lies in its tail. “They have a long and furry tail which helps the animal in balancing while traversing through the steep and rugged cliffs especially while racing behind their wild prey down the steep and treacherous inclines,” explains Rattan.
While not many of us have been fortunate enough to have seen a snow leopard, if you are one of the luckiest, you will know how it feels to stand in front of the majestic being with trembling legs, and glittering eyes. However, you will be surprised to know, it is not as aggressive as it seems to be.
“The snow leopard is a shy species and there have not been any reports of it being aggressive towards humans,” says Rattan.
This one of the most sought-after big cats is a prey to several myths, too. Here are some. “In India, especially the eastern Himalayas, snow leopards are revered as guardians of the mountains and often people believe that the mountain deities are upset with them if their livestock is killed by a snow leopard. This belief system is actually an intricate detail to the existing livestock depredation caused by snow leopards and dholes in the eastern Himalayas, as the people of these harsh landscapes navigate through loss, their spiritual beliefs and the relationship they share with their environment,” says Mohanachandran.
Rattan adds and tells you that in Nepal, it is believed that the snow leopards as well as domestic cats have taken birth to remove the sins of their past lives, and if you kill them, their sins will transfer to your life. “In Pakistan, the Wakhi ethnic people consider the high-altitude rangelands as sacred landscapes where supernatural powers tend their flocks of wild goats. They believe that these supernatural powers are protectors of high mountains and must not be displeased by misdeeds. If angered, they may cause economic losses to those responsible for the misdeeds. They liken the snow leopard (called ‘pes’ in Wakhi language) to the fairies which protect you but if angry they can punish you as well,” Rattan tells you.
However, among all this, what, often, goes unnoticed is the fact that the snow leopard is listed as vulnerable on IUCN- World Conservation Union's Red List.
Rattan says that there haven’t been any reliable estimates as the species has remained quite under-researched both in India and globally. There have been only some guesses or estimates about their population which suggest that there may be around 400-500 individuals in India while there may be 4000-6500 individuals found across the 12 snow leopard range countries. He lists some of the threats that the species is facing.
“One, heightened levels of habitat disturbance and degradation are the primary threat to the species. Two, poorly planned infrastructure projects including the linear infrastructure fragment their habitat. Three, ever-increasing numbers of domestic livestock put its prey-base as well as the rangelands under stress. Four, livestock predation by snow leopards often pitches humans against them. Five, free-ranging and feral dogs often hunt their prey and pose an undue competition for them. Six, inadequate research focusing on the species and its ecosystems,” opines Rattan.
With the species struggling to survive with so many threats, one may wonder what makes the conservation of tigers and lions steal the limelight. Mohanachandran has an answer.
“I think throughout the history of conservation in India, we have had a species focused conservation effort. And since the snow leopard inhabits the Himalayan States, the challenges that come with climate change and development induced environmental change have taken the center stage. And I believe that we are on the right path of focusing on a more holistic approach of conserving the landscape with its cultural and natural heritage as they become an integral part in the conservation of the species itself,” he opines.
Also, when you compare snow leopards to the other big cats, they are much less studied and very less is known about them. “They are restricted to alpine Himalayan rangelands with altitudes of more than 3000 meters and therefore only a determined few seek to reach them. While on the other hand tiger and lion are household names. The main reason for tigers and lions stealing the limelight is because they have been occupying a large portion of the mainland Indian jungles. There has also been a lot of research on Tigers since a long ago. Tiger-tourism and safaris put them on a pedestal long back,” opines Rattan.
However, the silver lining is that efforts are being made at multiple levels to conserve the snow leopards and their prey base. The Project Snow Leopard which was started in the year 2009 has chalked out an inclusive and participatory approach to conserve snow leopards and their habitat. “Under the ambit of Project Snow Leopard, various field-based conservation strategies are being rolled out by various organisations to ensure that the threats to the species could be minimised. Currently, efforts are going on in all the Himalayan States of India for snow leopard population assessment. Lately, the much-needed impetus is being given to snow leopard research. While a lot is being done, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that the conservation is ecosystem-based and holistic,” says Rattan.
And in case you didn’t know, the big cat with thick fur is also called the Ghost of the Mountains. “Like mentioned before, they are found in the very rugged, steep and high-altitude mountainous areas which are not easily accessible and therefore are the most elusive of all big cats. And because they are so elusive and there has been very little known about the species, they are considered very mysterious and often referred to as 'Ghost of the Mountains,'” concludes Rattan.