The absentee carnivores of the Himalayas

A group of scientists have produced a groundbreaking study on the impact the climate crisis and human disturbance are having on the habitats of apex predators in the Greater Himalayas.
Pragathi Ravi

Amidst the snowy caps and rugged terrain of the Himalayas, there is sometimes an unlikely visitor. Commonly known as the “ghost of the Himalayas” for how elusive this species is, the snow leopard is a sighting that only a few have been lucky to catch.

Armed with a perpetual frown, this apex predator is known for regulating prey populations and maintaining ecological balance in the Indian Himalayan region that covers over 530,000 sq km

“The alpine tracts and arid marginal mountains of the Tibetan plateau constitute the habitat of the elusive snow leopard,” found the first snow leopard census conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) between 2019 and 2023.

India is currently home to 718 snow leopards. Image: Unsplash/Uriel Soberanes.

According to the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI), the first-ever survey of the animal in the country and which assessed 70% of their habitat range, India is currently home to 718 of these elusive cats.

The climate crisis poses a huge threat to these creatures, expected to result in a loss of up to 30% of the snow leopard habitat in the Himalayas alone.

This is not just the case only for snow leopards, but true for several Himalayan carnivores. They play an important, albeit lesser-known, role in influencing prey populations, which in turn affects vegetation.

There are over 20 species of carnivores in the western Himalayas alone, ranging from common and snow leopards, black and brown Asiatic bears, martens, canids and wolves.

Research has shown that introducing carnivores to degraded ecosystems globally can foster recovery, as they act as watchdogs against herbivores and their unchecked grazing. Hence, their sparse distribution in one of the world’s most complex ecosystems due to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and climate change, is a cause for global concern.

Introducing carnivores to degraded ecosystems can foster recovery. Image: Unsplash/Sukant Sharma.

While the habitats of these carnivores have been shifting for some time now, due to the lack of historical data or precedent, researchers and scientists have found it difficult to make correlations about what these changing references mean.

To address this, a group of scientists came together to investigate the fine-resolution of climate change and other factors on Himalayan wildlife. By interviewing locals, they documented the sightings of three carnivores, to assess how their habitats are changing and to uncover their complex dynamics with humans. This study forms an important archive in staving off the extinction or endangerment of these beautiful species.

Setting the ecological scene

“Historically, the carnivores have inhabited various elevations and ecosystems in the region, ranging from 2,100-metre altitudes above sea level (ASL) to 4,700 metres ASL,” states carnivore ecologist Muzzaffar Kichloo.

Kichloo is one of three authors of a recent study, along with Dr Koustubh Sharma, director of science and conservation at the International Snow Leopard Trust, and Neeraj Sharma of the Institute of Mountain Environment at University of Jammu, which assessed the shrinkage of habitats among apex predators of the western Himalayas based on local people's sightings of the wildlife.

Himalayan alpine meadows. Image: Wikipedia.

Other experts help set the ecological scene. “Common leopards go as far high as there are trees,” says Kulbhushan Suryawanshi, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation.

“Once the trees stop, we have alpine meadows or the Trans-Himalayan deserts [which] the snow leopards occupy,” he continues.“Black bears are found in the forested areas of the Himalayas and once the trees give way to the moist meadows, that’s where the brown bears are found.”

There is, Suryawanshi adds, significant overlap between the preferred landscapes of snow leopard and brown bears. “Brown bears prefer a lot of moist areas as they eat roots and shoots and hence cannot occupy dry habitats. However, snow leopards occupy dry and moist habitats above the tree line beyond 3,000m.”  

Both black and brown bears are known to survive in sub-alpine areas such as meadows with some vegetation in between. “But when it comes to leopards, they are more adaptable, making them a common occurrence in the Terai forests as well as the lower foothills,” says Ghazala Shahbuddin, adjunct faculty at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

A Himalayan brown bear. Image: U.S. Embassy Islamabad.

Despite roads and other infrastructure threatening the habitats of the carnivores, common leopards have adjusted quite well to this, Shahbuddin has found during her work on land use changes and biodiversity patterns. “They tend to prefer places around human settlements because that’s where the cattle and the dogs are. They are one of the most adjusting species and are hence impacted less.”

The threat posed by climate change

However, climate change could lead to more conflicts between humans and some apex predators, Sharma, Sharma and Kichloo found in their study.

As the glaciers in the mountains of South Asia melt at a faster pace, climate change will inevitably alter carnivores' habitats. The authors predict that the rapidly increasing temperatures and shifting tree lines will have a more pronounced impact for the high-altitude dwelling species.

“With climate change, weather patterns are changing and people are moving into pastures they haven’t used before,” Kichloo explains.

Himalayan glaciers melting will alter carnivores' habitats. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The study further states that Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than the global average, and it is predicted that many glaciers in the region will retreat several kilometres, while smaller glaciers will disappear altogether by 2035.

“The areas with permanent glacier cover experienced less local extinctions of snow leopards, highlighting the importance of glacier cover in conserving species in the Himalayan region,” says Kichloo.

The trio found a noticeable shift in the distribution of carnivores between the time periods of early 1990s and around 2016 and 2017.  

“The study indicates that snow leopards shifted upwards and away from human settlements, while common leopards and Asiatic black bears suffered local extinctions at higher altitudes, shifting to lower areas with more vegetation, even if it brought them closer to settlements,” Kichloo states.

Although Sharma points out: “One of the most fascinating parts of the research was that it’s not linear for us to say that species will start using higher altitudes or that they’ll start moving lower.”

Echoing Sharma, Koustubh explains how each species is more likely to make its own choices regarding its landscape usage. “When glaciers melt and become pastures, the prey will start using the higher altitude to access these pastures,” he says. One of the possibilities of this is the snow leopard moving higher.  

Common leopards have shifted to lower areas with more vegetation. Image: Unsplash/Rajit Galaiya.

For bears and common leopards, however, the driving force could be the access to the vegetation. “If the vegetation patterns across some of the higher altitudes might have become inaccessible to them, they might be using the lower altitudes vividly,” Koustubh adds, which could potentially cause more conflict between the common leopard and humans as they roam closer to the settlements in these altitudes.

This conflict could translate into livestock loss, crop degradation, killings of humans, which according to a recent study, can potentially “diminish the local communities’ historical tolerance towards wildlife.”

Tiger habitats have also been shrunk due to climate change, and in some areas have caused them to scale higher altitudes due to mounting human pressure and warming temperatures.

“Earlier when tigers dispersed out of their natal habitats, they would look for ones near their previous habitats,” Shahbuddin says. “But with the tigers moving up so high, this can create a lot of conflict with snow leopards as they will compete for prey.”

Several experts maintain that the coexistence of humans and wildlife, especially in the form of infrastructure that drives habitat fragmentation, is going to determine how the species respond to climate change.

‘We need to maintain large continuous habitats’

While the study is a step in the right direction, the authors highlighted a dearth in consistent and elaborate data to map these carnivores and their movement. They also mentioned that with the data collected, they are still in the early stages of making comparisons and the findings are some of the possibilities of how the species will respond.

The study can offer insight into devising better conservation strategies for carnivores. Image: Unsplash/Bisesh Gurung.

That said, the study can offer insight into devising better conservation strategies for carnivores, given their movement and habitat affinities. “While we can make predictions of carnivore movement, we can predict how certain variables such as vegetation patterns, glacier patterns will change in the future,” says Koustubh, on how this would enable them to make hypothetical projections about the three species in the future.

“Their distribution can be juxtaposed with how people are going to change the way they use the habitat, will they change their livelihoods, will they move into greener pastures and if those greener pastures have a higher space-use probability, by the three species, then we are looking at more conflict that we have to preempt and begin  addressing,” says Koustubh.

“Carnivores are far-ranging animals which move a lot at night. If you want the herbivores to move with them, then the entire fauna needs to be able to move uphill,” says Shahbuddin.

In the middle altitude Himalayas which are the most conducive to human settlements and has seen a spike in tourism-related activities, she also recommends capping construction of roads and resorts that fragment habitats.

“It is better to consolidate protection. For this, we need to maintain large continuous habitats from the Terai up to the high mountains,” recommends Shahbuddin. This, she says, is the only way that the carnivores will be able to survive because they can move across human settlements.

In the past, the government has also identified the key role that local communities play in species conservation. The Project Snow Leopard that was launched by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to safeguard India’s high-altitude wildlife populations via participatory policies. This entailed promotion of a knowledge-based adaptive conservation framework that involved local communities who lived in its range.

Additionally, Suryawanshi also highlighted the conservation efforts his organisation carries out with the local communities. From 2013, predator-proofing of corrals was undertaken to ensure the traditionally pastoralist communities did not lose their livestock to attacks by carnivores. This in turn reduces negative interactions between communities and the wildlife.

With co-existence being one of the norms for conservation in India, these efforts show promise materialising even in rugged landscapes such as the Himalayas.

Pragathi Ravi is an independent journalist covering climate justice, energy transitions and natural resource governance in India. She is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Centre grant.

Feature image: Unsplash/Frida Lannerström.

Pragathi Ravi

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