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Context: A recent study by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) on snow leopard (Panthera uncia) has thrown up interesting insights on the elusive mountain cat and its prey species. The study under National Mission on Himalayan Studies revealed a strong link between habitat use by Snow Leopard and its prey species Siberian ibex and blue sheep.
- The elusive and charismatic snow leopard feeds on hoofed animals (ungulates) including the Siberian ibex, blue sheep, urial and argali in the Himalayas.
- The snow leopard detection probability was high if the site was used by its prey species, i.e., ibex and blue sheep.
- Whereas, in the case of the prey species, the probability of detection was low when the predator (snow leopard) was present and detected.
- Snow leopards use rugged mountainous areas or non-forested areas covering an altitude between 3200m-5200m.
- Habitat covariates, such as barren area, grassland, aspect, slope and distance to water were important drivers of habitat use for the snow leopard as well as its prey species.
- Classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list and listed in Schedule-I species of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, snow leopards are elusive mountain cats whose survival depends on depends primarily on wild ungulates.
- Higher up in the mountains, predators such as snow leopards regulated the populations of herbivores such as the blue sheep and Siberian ibex, thereby safeguarding the health of grasslands and a long-term absence of snow leopards could cause trophic cascades as ungulate populations would likely increase, leading to depletion of vegetation cover.
- Snow leopards have a vast but fragmented distribution across the mountainous landscape of central Asia, which covers different parts of the Himalayas such as Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Sikkim.
- This charismatic species is largely threatened because of the loss of natural prey species, retaliatory killing due to conflict with humans and illegal trade of its fur and bones.