Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia)

Snow leopard walking on namesake

Introduction and Objectives section from:

Ecology and conservation of the snow leopard and the Himalayan tahr in Sagarmatha National Park (Nepal) 

Progress report

Som B. Ale, UIC, Chicago, USA

In the early 1970s in east Nepal, the endangered snow leopard was locally extirpated in what is now Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park (E 86° 30' 53" to E 86° 99' 08" and N 27° 46' 19" to N 27° 6' 45"; area 1,148 km2). In 1987, Ahlborn and Jackson reported some signs probably made by transient cats from Tibet in the Gokyo area of the park. After almost three decades of effective protection measures, the virtual cessation of hunting and the recovery of the endangered Himalayan tahr Hemitragus jemlahicus (and musk deer Moschus chrysogaster) in the park since its establishment in 1976, snow leopards seem to have made a comeback to the world’s highest national park. The Sagarmatha National Park (or Khumbu) lies in the Solu-Khumbu district of the northeastern region of Nepal and encompasses the upper catchment of the Dudh Kosi River system.

Himalayan Tahr

Himalayan Tahr

One of the objectives of this research project is to assess whether snow leopards have established resident populations in the park. How far have they expanded their range? What is the status of their main prey? Answering these questions will be the main purpose of the project (part I). Achieving this will form the basis to explore some ecological questions associated with the larger project on the snow leopard and the Himalayan tahr in Sagarmatha (part II). For management purposes, information on local megafauna such as the snow leopard is crucial not only for the overall management of the park, but also to expedite the trans-boundary landscape conservation, an effort that is currently being undertaken in Nepal and its neighboring countries. Because no protected areas in Nepal are large enough to contain viable populations of snow leopards and other large predators, the establishment of trans-frontier conservation areas at landscape level with neighboring countries may facilitate genetic exchanges between individuals ensuring their long-term survival (Soule 1987, Jackson and Ahlborn 1990, Green 1994). Qomolongma Nature Preserve (Tibet, China), and Langtang, Makalu-Barun and Everest National Parks in Nepal form the largest trans-frontier conservation area covering approx. 40,000 km2 in the Himalayan region.

Study sites (ovals) in Sagarmatha National Park

Map of study sites in Sagarmatha National Park

Here we have summarized some findings of part I, with a note on issues akin to local land use practices that may have relevance to wildlife conservation. A detailed (technical) report will be submitted later. We have also estimated the relative abundance of snow leopards although this assessment is preliminary, and is subject to changes as more information will be collected in coming years. Snow leopards leave marks in the form of scrapes, scent sprays, feces and pugmarks (Rieger 1978, Ahlborn and Jackson 1988) which can be indexed to derive information on abundance using standardized methodology called the Snow Leopard Information Management System (SLIMS) (Jackson and Hunter 1996, see also Connor et al. 1983, Van Dyke et al. 1986, for other species). For Himalayan tahr, fixed-point counts from ridgeline vantage points were outlined. Survey blocks were delineated on maps and observation sites identified. Opportunistic observations on tahr and other prey species of snow leopards were also made along snow leopard sign transects which provided supplemental data to fixed-point counts of tahr. A sample of 20 adult males was darted, weighted, aged, eartagged, and their blood samples were collected, as part of the Ev-K2-CNR project. A study on Himalayan tahr was carried out with the following expected results: minimum population distribution, size and density of tahr in selected areas of the park, assessment of sex ratio and assessment of reproductive rate. Observations on the foraging behavior of tahr were also made, and findings will be reported later in the final report.

Local herders and key residents were interviewed about wildlife numbers and abundance. They were also questioned on land use practices such as grazing.