By Harihar Swarup
No one knows how many leopards there are in the wild, not even Chandrutt Mishra, the world’s leading expert on big cats, and he has been studying them for 25 years. The gray-spotted cat that lives in the snowy mountains of Asia is so elusive that a single photograph taken in 1970 circulated for two decades.
Mishra had his first sighting in 2006, a decade after he began working in the field. “After crossing the parliament by the Parilubgb river which flows into the Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh, we were climbing up a steep gorge. Every time I stopped to catch my breath, I scanned the opposite slope. Suddenly what I thought was a rock came to life,” says Mishra, 51, “It was sublime. The cold of the frozen river disappeared. The pain of falling into the water was forgotten.”
Despite their name and habitat, snow leopards avoid snow when they can, he added. “The Mopa people of Arunachal Pradesh have a much more appropriate name for themselves: Tasken, leopard of the rocks.”
There are an estimated 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. “But these are just guests,” says Mishra. The animal is so shy and elusive, its habitats so difficult to access that there has never been a complete count (one of the things Mishra is working to change in 12 countries).
The truth is that it is a species at risk. In addition to the natural challenges it faces, it has been classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As with most species, the reasons are interlinked: overgrazing by livestock has caused the snow leopard’s natural prey population to decline, forcing it to snatch livestock from local human settlements, leading to dozens of retaliatory killings over decades. Meanwhile, their habitat is also changing, as a result of the climate crisis and ongoing human activity (projects, even in their remote mountainous habitats, include mines and roads).
In 1996, when Mishra first visited the Spiti Valley for doctoral research in ecology and natural resource conservation, a snow leopard had recently entered the village of Kibber and killed some cattle. The locals told him a graphic story of how a leopard was killed. What was agonizing to hear, Mishra adds, was that visitors lined up to beat the corpse and curse it for causing them so much hardship.
That is the first half of a story that Mishra often tells. The second half takes place 17 years later and has a happier ending. “In 2019, an old snow leopard fell into a gorge and died,” says Mishra. “This time, the Kibber people retrieved the corpse and cremated it with full Buddhist rites, and an auspicious scarf reserved for various guests.”
For his role in driving this change, Misra won his first Whitley Award, in 2005. Last week he won his second.
The first was to establish India’s first community-managed livestock insurance scheme, at Sipti. Launched in 2002 and still very successful, it insures each head of cattle for a certain sum, which is paid out in the event of a snow leopard attack.
Under the scheme, herders must agree to let the snow leopard attack take the livestock it has killed, lest it unduly kill more; and they must commit to preserving small strips of grassland as grazing grounds for their natural prey, which are wild sheep and mountain goats.
The program is sustained through grants and funds such as the Whitley Prize of Rs. 95 lakhs and has spread over the years to several other countries with snow leopard habitats, including Mongolia, Pakistan and China. (IPA Service)
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