Thimpu, Bhutan, – On International Snow Leopard Day, Bhutan today released the results of its first nationwide snow leopard survey – showing there are 96 of the endangered big cats roaming the country. It is the the first time any snow leopard range country has conducted a full national census of the species.
According to findings from the National Snow Leopard Camera Trap Survey and the National Snow Leopard Sign and Prey Base Survey, snow leopards roam the high mountains throughout Bhutan from 3,404m to as high as 5,186m.
Previously, it was estimated that 100 to 200 snow leopards lived in Bhutan but that figure was little more than a guess.
“For the first time, we know exactly how many snow leopards live across the kingdom of Bhutan,” said the Agriculture Minister, Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji. “This historic survey will allow us to devise the most appropriate management plan to conserve these remarkable big cats, their prey and their habitat.”
Conducted by the Department of Forests and Park Services and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, the census involved staff hiking for months through some of the country’s highest, steepest and remotest mountain ranges to confirm the presence of the reclusive cats. They conducted systematic surveys of tracks as well as installing camera traps in 221 locations.
The cameras provided detailed information on snow leopards across the nation as well as capturing photographic evidence of new populations in Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve and Paro Territorial Forest Division, indicating that the population is healthy and that Bhutan is critical habitat for the species in the Eastern Himalayan region.
While the snow leopard is notoriously difficult to see, it is regarded as an indicator species of the health of the ecosystem. Its presence across Bhutan is a sign that much of the country’s high-mountain ecosystems remain healthy, which is critical as they are the source of water for millions of people downstream.
“The results confirm that Bhutan offers a safe haven for snow leopards thanks to the tireless work of the government and partners,” said Dechen Dorji, Bhutan Country Representative for WWF, which helped to fund the research.
“Bhutan has shown real leadership in conducting the world’s first ever nationwide snow leopard census. It is vital that other range states follow suit since there is very little accurate data on snow leopards and this is one of the major obstacles to effective conservation work,” added Dechen Dorji.
Along with more detailed data, the two reports also provide a series of recommendations to strengthen snow leopard conservation in Bhutan, including the need to develop a comprehensive climate smart landscape conservation plan.
Bhutan also announced today the first collaring of snow leopards in the country. WWF-Bhutan and Finland provided financial support for the expedition, which eventually collared two females in Jigme Dorji National Park. Local communities played a vital role by identifying the best spots for the collaring team. The collars will provide vital information on the behaviour and movements of the endangered big cats.
Overall, there are estimated to be 3,920 to 6,930 snow leopards in the 12 range states across Asia’s High Mountains. In many areas, populations appear to be declining in due to retaliatory killings by herders who lose livestock to snow leopards, habitat loss and degradation, dwindling prey species and poaching for illegal trade. Climate change will exacerbate many of these direct threats.
Along with WWF, the Global Environmental Facility, World Bank, Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation, Nature and Biodiversity Union of Germany, International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India and the government of Bhutan provided financial support to carry out the surveys.