SNOW LEOPARD: THE GUARDIAN OF HIDDEN VALLEYS

*The original article can be found in the article entitled ‘On the status of Snow Leopard Panthera uncia (Schreber, 1775) in Annapurna, Nepal’ by. Som, B. Ale et al.

Hidden valley or Beyul exists in the mountains of Himalayas protected by the mountain God. Description of this unique almost mystical like location can only be found in scrolls concealed in monasteries, and selected caves. Shall any person with ill intentions try to enter the hidden valley, the snow leopard awaits at the mountain pass entrance observing any trespassers and will not hesitate to exterminate the person.

The above illustrates one of the many fables describing the snow leopard’s relationship with buddhism. While the article is dedicated to the status survey of the snow leopard and its main prey, the Blue Sheep, in the Mustang District of Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area in 2010 and 2011, it also explores the human relationship with the ghost cat based on their buddhist socio-religious values.

Mustang is a vast land, separated by upper and lower mustang. Apart from the snow leopard, Mustang also shelters various species such as the lynx, grey wolf, and other ungulates like the nearly-threatened Tibetan Argali Sheep and the Tibetan Gazelle. It is also a place called home for 15 000 people.

Albeit beautiful and mesmerising, Mustang has a rugged layout coupled with extreme weather conditions which tick all the checklist of an ideal home for the snow leopard to live and breed. As the snow leopard is a species that interacts with each other although differ in geography (metapopulation), Mustang connects both eastern and western Nepal provides a strategic location for the cats from respective areas to interbreed.

At the elevation of 3000m and 5500m, the researchers located ridge line, narrow valleys, trails and cliff-edges, to detect the adventurous cat. Apart from identifying the snow leopard’s tracks, a method known as ‘transect method’ was performed in which trails such as faeces, footprints (pug marks), scrapes and scent marks on boulders and rocks used by the snow leopard by rubbing its cheek, were collected. Camera traps were also deployed in order to obtain visual evidence of the shy cat.

The highest encounter of the snow leopard’s sign was in spring, while lowest in summer. Researchers suggested that the snow leopard move to higher grounds which are inaccessible to humans due to its challenging landscape to escape summer where intensifying pressures from livestock grazing and human presence in lower elevations occur.

Wildlife human conflict is a common issue for villagers living close to their habitat. In this regard, from collated data via interviews, the local people reflected mixed feelings toward the snow leopard due to livestock-rearing although losses ranged from none to 6.6% in 2010 and 2011.

Yet, villages in Lubra however are still tolerable with the snow leopard, albeit uneasily. This could be due to the local legend where the Buddhist deities disguised as the snow leopard and travelled from one settlement to another to protect villages from demons and natural calamities. Thus, killing a snow leopard is equivalent to harming the community’s ancestral spirits.

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