Renowned for prioritizing Gross National Happiness over the profit-driven acquisitiveness of unrestrained capitalism, the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, nestled high in the rarified air of the eastern Himalaya, is also making strides in the field of wildlife conservation. Earlier this year the nation reported a heartening 27 per cent jump in the number of wild tigers since 2015.* On 16 September, Bhutan’s National Snow Leopard Survey 2022–2023 confirmed a substantial increase in the snow leopard population to 134 individuals, up 39.5 per cent from 96 snow leopards recorded in 2015.
Speaking at the release event for the survey results, Bhutan’s secretary for the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, Karma Tshering, said that while the results confirmed Bhutan as a stronghold for snow leopards, “It is also a species in peril; the IUCN Red List designates the snow leopard as ‘Vulnerable.’ Without protection, this magnificent species could face extinction in the near future.” (Kuensel)
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that it had raised its classification for the snow leopard on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species to “Vulnerable” from “Endangered” in September 2017 for the first time in 45 years, following a three-year evaluation. To be considered endangered there must be fewer than 2,500 mature adult individuals in the wild, but experts now believe there may be a total wild population of some 4,000 snow leopards, with some estimating there could be as many as 10,000. Their elusive nature and the remoteness of their preferred habitats, however, makes a precise consensus difficult.
“Bhutan’s second national survey covered more than 9,000 square kilometers of snow leopard habitat across the northern alpine landscape of the country with 310 camera trap stations,” the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reported.** “It found an overall density of 1.34 snow leopards per 100 square kilometers, which was comparatively higher in the west than in central and eastern Bhutan. Snow leopards were also recorded in several new locations. With a vast expanse of suitable snow leopard habitat bordering India and China, the survey suggests Bhutan can serve as a source population for snow leopards in the region.” (WWF)
The notoriously reclusive and highly camouflaged snow leopard, sometimes dubbed the “ghost of the mountains,” is found in remote mountain habitats in 12 countries across the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Nomadic by nature, snow leopards typically inhabit alpine and subalpine zones at elevations between 3,000 and 4,500 meters. According to the Snow Leopard Trust, the species prefers “the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines. This type of habitat provides good cover and clear views to help them find prey, and sneak up on it.” (Snow Leopard Trust)
The diet of these almost mythical cats is dependent on their location, but snow leopards most often hunt wild goats and sheep, especially the Himalayan blue sheep, Asiatic ibex, and the argali. They are also occasionally known to hunt domestic livestock, which can bring them into conflict with humans settlements.*** Snow leopards are under threat from habitat degradation, prey depletion, conflict with humans, poaching, and climate change.
Deputy Chief Forestry Officer Letro of the Department of Forests and Park Services noted that Bhutan’s national conservation policy was active on wildlife preservation: “I think we have a very strong conservation policy and we put a lot of conservation efforts. Moreover, we put a lot of community-based conservation initiatives, which makes our community and the local people stewards of the snow leopard. National Conservation Policy is contributing toward the increasing population of the snow leopard.” (ANI)
The National Snow Leopard Survey 2022–2023 was carried out with funding support from the Bhutan For Life project, while WWF-Bhutan supported the effort by supplying field equipment.
“The increase in snow leopard numbers is yet another milestone achievement for Bhutan’s conservation journey. It clearly demonstrates the government’s leadership and the conservation ethos of the highland communities.” said WWF-Bhutan’s country director Chimi Rinzin. “WWF is fully cognizant of the challenges of increasing conflict, and we will strive toward addressing this issue to sustain the future of snow leopards while safeguarding the livelihoods of the herder communities.” (WWF)
Remote, landlocked, and perched in the rarified air of the eastern Himalaya, the Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between two political and economic heavy-hitters India and China, is the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist country. The ancient spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction from Tibet by Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, in the eighth century.
Almost 75 per cent of Bhutan’s population of some 770,000 people identify as Buddhists, according to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, with Hindus accounting for the majority of the remaining 25 per cent. Most of Bhutan’s Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism. Bhutan held its first elections as a constitutional monarchy in 2008.
** Formerly the World Wildlife Fund, although this name is still used in the US and Canada.
WWF: 39.5% increase in snow leopard numbers in Bhutan ‘a milestone achievement’ (WWF)
Snow leopard population grows (Kuensel)
Bhutan hits milestone in snow leopard conversation with nearly 40 pc increase in population (ANI)
Bhutan hits milestone in snow leopard conversation (The Sentinel)
Action for snow leopards (ICUN)
Snow Leopard Trust
Bhutan for Life
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