Modelling the Ghost of the Mountain

By Sophie May Watts
Winston Cobb Memorial Fellow

Snow leopard prey

The snow leopard is a notoriously elusive species, inhabiting some of the most remote and inaccessible tracts of Central and South Asia. However, in northern India where snow leopard densities are among the highest in the world, tourists and local people can catch glimpses of the magnificent cat throughout the winter months. Snow leopard tourism is growing fast in the region, and most of the tourists wonder about the cat's whereabouts. A newly published paper by Panthera and Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust (SLC-IT) researchers illuminate how scientists are modelling potential habitat for this elusive big cat in Ladakh, India.* This snow leopard modelling work is important to helping the communities and the cats of Ladakh co-exist.

Sadly, some of people’s encounters with cats in the region fall into the category of human-wildlife conflict (HWC), including when snow leopards prey on livestock inside corrals and when farmers retaliate by killing the cats. It is the aim of Panthera and SLC-IT to minimize these conflicts throughout Ladakh by implementing HWC mitigation efforts. These efforts include constructing predator-proof corrals to protect livestock and reduce financial losses or retaliatory killings, as well as delivering homestay and handicraft training that can provide a supplementary income for the community.

Snow leopard

In order to best target HWC mitigation efforts it is important to know where the snow leopards are most likely to be found. This is no easy feat, as searching for the “mountain ghost” involves navigating treacherous terrain, often in sub-zero temperatures. Using both direct observations along with camera trap footage, researchers at SLC-IT and Panthera have constructed a model to visualise snow leopard habitat suitability across Ladakh. The model classified Ladakh into areas of low, medium or high habitat suitability. Snow leopards in Ladakh seem to prefer elevations of 2,800m to 4,600m in highly rugged landscapes, an observation that is consistent with perceived preferences in other parts of their geographic range. Approximately 12% of Ladakh is considered highly suitable habitat for snow leopards and this area already contains over half of all existing livestock corrals and homestays.

Communities in the region have been using corrals to prevent snow leopards, and other carnivores, from preying upon their livestock. To date, corrals have been constructed in villages where face-to-face interviews with villagers documented previous depredation events or indicated a perceived risk of such events. The advantage of using this new model is that villages within highly suitable snow leopard habitat can be prioritised for new corral construction, thus saving valuable conservation resources and maximising the benefits of building these structures.

Snow leopard toys

Researchers also hope that winter wildlife tourism will also be positively affected by this model. Currently, homestays across Ladakh are well utilised in summer months due to their proximity to trekking routes; however, winter snow leopard tourism is focused in only two valleys. With heavy localised winter tourism, these two areas experience increased levels of resource use, waste production, and ground trampling that could be dissipated by encouraging tourism in alternative areas of Ladakh. Not only this, but by expanding winter tourism throughout more homestays and in more areas of highly suitable snow leopard habitat, the economic benefits will reach more villages year-round.

Snow leopard-proof pen

This study is the first regional habitat suitability model within India that used direct observation data for snow leopards. Roughly 30% of all Ladakh is considered medium or high suitability snow leopard habitat. By prioritizing their preferred habitat, and then targeting new corral development to these areas, we hope to protect the future of both the people and the cats of Ladakh. Thanks to our work modelling potential snow leopard habitat in Ladakh, we can help these communities better co-exist with these magnificent cats.  

*The paper was co-authored by Panthera Winston Cobb Fellow Sophie May Watts, along with Tsewang Namgail of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust and Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program Director Dr. Tom McCarthy. The habitat suitability model has been published in PLOS ONE, an Open Access journal that you can access here.

Learn more about Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program.