The beckoning of a silent Saving the Panthera uncial

Snow leopard numbers in the country calling for increased protection of their habitats

Bhutan confirmed the presence of 134 snow leopards and an overall density of 1.34 snow leopards per 100 sqkms after spanning over 9000 sqkms across the northern alpine landscape, installing 310 camera trap stations and fielding the rugged and harsh mountain terrains,

The second National Snow Leopard (Panthera uncial) Survey 2022-2023 which commenced in 2022 and was completely recently, used the most robust and state-of-the-art camera trappings across snow leopard habitats. The density was a modest increase from the 2016 baseline where 96 individuals were counted in that density.

Funded by the Bhutan For Life Program, the survey found out that the density was comparatively higher in western Bhutan than in the central and eastern parts of the country. Additionally, snow leopards were also captured from new locations such as Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and low elevation regions of the Divisional Forest Office, Thimphu.

Secretary of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MoENR), Karma Tshering reiterated that the survey results are compelling evidence confirming Bhutan as a stronghold for snow leopards. However, he added that the animals are also a species in peril, and listed as ‘vulnerable’ under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. He highlighted that the species is under the threat of extinction without protection.

Bhutan, with a vast expanse of suitable snow leopard habitats spread across the northern part of the country adjoining Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (India), and Tibetan plateau (China), could serve as a source population for snow leopards in the region.

Snow leopards are found in twelve countries across central and south Asia, extending to the mountains of south Siberia in the north, and are threatened by habitat degradation, prey depletion, conflicts with humans, and climate change.

Other key observations from the survey were the evidence of habitat overlap between snow leopards and other large carnivores like tiger and common leopard and the capture of a deer species called White-lipped deer/Thorold’s deer (Cervus albirostris) from Divisional Forest Offices, Paro, which is a new species record for the country.

The survey was completed by over 70 frontline rangers from the protected areas of Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve, Jigme Dorji National Park, Wangchuck Centennial National Park, Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, and Divisional Forest Offices of Paro and Thimphu.

Although global population of snow leopards is declining, results from the survey in Bhutan indicate that conservation efforts in the country are having a positive impact on maintaining the viable population of snow leopards. The snow leopard is listed under Schedule I of the Forests and Nature Conservation Act 2023, and an illegal act against the species is an offence of fourth-degree felony.

Officials from Bhutan For Life pointed out that it indeed is exciting to learn that the snow leopard population in Bhutan is increasing, and this result indicates the healthy alpine mountain ecosystem, which is a critical water source for millions of people downstream. “Bhutan for Life is privileged to be part of this conservation initiative through our financing mechanism,” Pema Wangda, the Executive Director of the Bhutan for Life Fund Secretariat, said.

The increase in snow leopard number is yet another milestone achievement for Bhutan’s conservation journey. It demonstrates the government’s leadership and conservation ethos of the highland communities.

“WWF is fully cognizant of the challenges of increasing conflict, and we will strive towards addressing this issue to sustain the future of snow leopards while safeguarding the livelihoods of the herder communities,” an official from the Fund said.

Conservation partners like the Bhutan Foundation, Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation, WWF Bhutan, and UNDP Bhutan also support various snow leopard conservation initiatives in the country.

Tashi Namgyal from Thimphu