The estimated population of the endangered cat globally is between 4,080-6,590

Wildlife: Bhutan has 96 snow leopards (Panthera uncia) according to the first national snow leopard survey carried out by the Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS).

The report was launched yesterday to coincide with International Snow Leopard Day.

Listed as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the snow leopard is found in 12 Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and Turkmenistan.

Its estimated global population is 4,080-6,590.

As per the report, empirical evidence of approximately 96 individual snow leopards was collected during the two-year long survey from 2014-2016.

“Now with strong empirical evidence, Bhutan can boast of harbouring an estimated 96 individuals of snow leopard,” the report states.

Two snow leopards have also been radio collared for the first time in the country. “This will feed us information on its whereabouts and their movement in winter and summer, and its feeding habits, among others, which will go a long way in protection and continuity of the species,” agriculture minister, Yeshey Dorji, said.

Jigme Dorji National Park has the highest number of snow leopards with 31. The Wangchuck Centennial National park has 17.

The report states that 96 snow leopards is a highly viable population with huge potential for growth and stability. “Coupled with strong political will and support from the government, the people and vast tracks of contiguous habitats, Bhutan is certainly a stronghold for snow leopard conservation in the eastern Himalayas,” the report states.

The survey also found that the Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve and the northern part of the Paro Territorial Forest division are also home to snow leopards.

The Paro Territorial Forest division is recognised as the first snow leopard area outside the protected areas.

During his keynote address, Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji said that although it was the fourth time the country was observing International Snow Leopard Day, this year is special because of the report.

He said the report is special because while 12 other countries including China, Mongolia, India and Nepal, among others, have made estimates of their snow leopard populations, none have carried out a scientific survey like Bhutan.

No image of the snow leopard could be obtained from the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary though camera traps were placed. The report however states that many images of blue sheep, which is the snow leopard’s regular prey, have been captured in the protected areas.

Nevertheless, the report is positive that with the sighting of blue sheep in the Singye Dzong and Shingphel areas, it offers potential for rehabilitation of a few snow leopards in the future.

The survey also recorded the presence of several snow leopards in the past as per reports from yak herders and monks in these places.

The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary also offers a similar scope for the introduction of blue sheep and snow leopard as per the report.

But the report however emphasised that the government needs to continue maintaining the habitat quality and contiguity in order to ensure long-term survival of the snow leopard, which is on the brink of extinction.

The report points out that increasing collection of medical plants and eco-tourism in the alpine areas are emerging threats to blue sheep due to interference in breeding and competition for fodder. “This will in turn affect the snow leopard’s food chain and ultimate sustenance,” the report states.

It is recommended that an in-depth study on the impacts of these activities on blue sheep and snow leopard is carried out.

The ministry also issued 147 forest officials and a core team from the forests and park services department certificates in recognition of the success of the survey.

One of the survey members lost his life during the activity. A young forester from the Wangchuk Centennial National Park, Ratna Bahdhur Mongar, who volunteered for the survey died in September 2015 in Lunana, mid-way through a camera-trapping exercise. “If Ratna Bahdhur Mongar had been here with us today, he would be as proud as any of us. We express our respects for his perseverance and hard work,” Lyonpo said.

A moment of silence was observed during the event in memory of the late forester.

Meanwhile, the minister said that every year the ministry will initiate research of wild animals, flora and fauna to study the natural world of Bhutan. The ministry has already radio-collared a number of wild animals such as elephants, takins and the black-necked crane for studies. “Even some wild boars have been radio collared to understand and resolve human-wildlife conflict,” Lyonpo said.

He added that in December another report on takins that have been radio collared will be released.

Reports on ecology, morphology and genetic study of the Assamese Macaque (Macaca assamensis), status and distribution of the Central Himalayan Langur (semnopithecus schistaceus), birds of the Royal Botanical Park and an information booklet on the Royal Botanical Park were also launched yesterday.

Tempa Wangdi