A set of camera traps placed by researchers from WWF-India in northern Sikkim has captured the first photos of the endangered snow leopard.

Yak herders in the area have been telling scientists that there are snow leopards in northern Sikkim — geographically part of the Tibetan Plateau — but this is the first time they have been photographed, that too at four different locations.

The camera traps have also captured the rare Pallas cat, blue sheep and the Tibetan argali.

The snow leopard has been identified as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Information on its whereabouts is scanty — its current range in the high Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau is poorly mapped.

Since 2006, WWF-India has been working in Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim to understand the snow leopard’s status and distribution in India. In Sikkim, camera traps started to be set up in 2015. Now they will be set up in more spots.

In India, snow leopard conservation efforts have so far been largely restricted to the western Himalayas. The snow leopards in Sikkim are contiguous with populations in Nepal, making it one of the key habitats for ensuring the animal’s long term survival in the eastern Himalayas.

A big problem with snow leopard conservation was that shepherds used to be against the idea, since snow leopards attack their flocks occasionally. There have been cases where kills have been poisoned or snow leopards shot when they came back to a kill. Conservationists have addressed the problem in Ladakh by providing shepherds reinforced sheep pens that the snow leopards cannot break into. WWF-India is now planning to extend the idea to Sikkim.

Dipankar Ghose, director of WWF-India’s Species and Landscapes Programme, said, “Addressing retaliatory killing of snow leopards due to livestock depredation, managing the population of free ranging dogs and securing livelihoods of local communities, especially by targeting community resilience towards climate-induced changes, are the pillars of our conservation efforts. Recognizing the need to engage with multiple stakeholders at multiple levels, WWF-India is working with the Indian armed forces to raise awareness about the fragile ecology of the Himalayas and involving them in wildlife monitoring programmes. Together with the local tourism development committee, WWF-India is also initiating several natural resource management practices with a strong focus on waste management. Responsible tourism is being promoted in the region to reduce pressures on snow leopard habitats.”

The camera trap study is expected to be completed by 2017. Rishi Kumar Sharma, Snow Leopard Coordinator, WWF-India, said, “With credible scientific information, WWF-India envisions a future where the snow leopards thrive in the high mountains and the local communities benefit from a resilient and productive ecosystem.”

Also read: Winning photos capture threats to wildlife
Also read: Photographing the elusive Himalayan snow leopard

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