By Bittu Sahgal
What an exquisite sight. This curious snow leopard cub and its (out of frame) mother and sibling were photographed using a 24-70 mm. wide-angle lens by roving conservation photographer Shivaraman Subramaniam on January 30, 2016, while returning from the Siachen base camp. By comparison, it took decades of trekking the high-altitude havens of the Himalaya for Dr. George Schaller to see his first snow leopard.
Alluring as the image is, the sighting is not a cause for celebration. Clearly Panthera uncia must somehow deal not only with hunters but killer traffic too as Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal unleash a road-building frenzy of uncontainable magnitude.
At the Sanctuary Asia office in Bombay in 1986, I sat with the inspirational Dr. Helen Freeman, Founder of the Snow Leopard Trust, speaking with anguish of how the illegal wildlife trade was successfully triggering retaliatory killing by Ladakhi herders because snow leopards could pick off an entire flock of penned domestic sheep in a night.
Helen and I were two among many speakers at the fifth International Snow Leopard Symposium in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, the same year; no one imagined that the high-altitude isolation we all quoted as vital to the survival of snow leopard, ibex, blue sheep, marmots and hare, might vanish like a wisp.
The snow leopard is a barometer for climate change in the Himalaya, and even way back then, though we spoke of impacts such as glacial melt and an upward-creeping tree-line, we did not factor in the possibility that together with rising human and livestock populations, habitat fragmentation and run-away road building could erode around a third of the snow leopard’s Himalayan habitat.
Apart from the countries listed above, help is being sought from mountain-dwelling communities to create 20 or more, large snow leopard havens across such nations as Afghanistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The strike strategy, being successfully demonstrated by the Snow Leopard Conservancy in India, is to create culturally sensitive and ecologically responsible livelihoods where locals become the prime beneficiaries of both conservation measures and moderated tourism.
The moot question now is whether we will choose to take the road leading towards such sensible ambitions, or whether the money-men will herd us collectively towards their pie-in-the-sky Roads to Nowhere.