Only five percent of India’s land mass is covered in forests. Yet, despite such constraints, wildlife abounds in the Indian subcontinent. While wildlife research has come a long way, not all of our species have had equal attention dedicated to their ecology and plight. Today, on the advent of UN World Wildlife Day 2018, join me on a brief journey into the lives of two of India’s rare and elusive big cats – the snow leopard and the clouded leopard.
Let us begin with the elusive snow leopard. Consigned to a ghostly life in the high Himalayas, the snow leopard lives above the tree line in a world of snow and ice, which it continues to lose to climate change. This big cat is cloaked in a heavy white coat, with a large tail and small, rounded ears to store fat and minimize heat loss. It is thus perfectly suited to hunt its primary prey – the bharal, or blue sheep – in the Himalayan snows. Not many have studied or seen the snow leopard; indeed, even researchers who have dedicated their lives to understanding and protecting this big cat have claimed very few sightings. Aptly nicknamed the ‘ghost cat,’ only 200-300 individuals remain in India today. Few people are willing to stake out in the unfriendly land of the grey ghost, even to study it, and as pollution increases, so does our climate continues to warm, intensifying the melting of ice in the Himalayan cold desert. Additionally, the snow leopard enters into conflict with herders in the high-altitude grasslands, where domestic livestock overgraze the lands that once supported large herds of wild prey. With a declining prey base, the snow leopard is forced to prey upon livestock, spurring retaliation by irate herders.
Perhaps the snow leopard is fated to slip into the shadows one day, but can India really afford to lose this snow-bound cat? You and I may never see the snow leopard, but there is inherent value in knowing that it continues to haunt the high reaches of the Himalayas, drenched in moonlight in a kingdom of snow.
As the Himalayan snows give way to the lush rainforests of Northeast India, another elusive cat makes its appearance – the clouded leopard. Spotted, and hard to spot, the clouded leopard is arboreal, preferring to lead its life in the trees of the cloud forest. It is also found through Southeast Asia and in parts of China, while a subspecies of this cat, the Sunda Clouded Leopard, is only found on the island of Sunda. This is the smallest of the big cats, and like the snow leopard, little is known about its ecology in the wild. It helps that India’s Northeast is relatively unexplored and hosts dense forest cover, granting this cat a respite from unwanted attention. Yet it finds its way into the busy wildmeat markets in its range states. The tribes of Northeast India both revere and hunt the clouded leopard, even as poachers eye it for the monetary value of its dappled pelt. Additionally, deforestation is major threat to the survival of this alluring feline, as it spends its life in the trees and depends upon them for its prey as well as for shelter.
Northeast India is a jewel in our country’s figurative crown, one that remains relatively unknown. Just as its homeland is clouded in secrecy, so is the clouded leopard hidden from public attention. But can this cat survive if we refuse to open our eyes to the threats that plague its habitat?
It is fitting that the theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day is “Big cats – Predators under threat.” I hope this post has increased awareness of two of our rarest wild animals, both of which are fighting a tenuous battle to earn the right to live. Who are we to play God and doom them to extinction? On World Wildlife Day, take a few minutes out of your day to spread the word. Share this post. Or don’t. But use your powers of communication to educate those who are not aware of the threats facing these alluring wild cats. Nature is as much a part of our country’s heritage as our rich culture. Let us not let our precious wildlife and last wild places fade away.
Thanks for fighting the battle for big cats.
Happy World Wildlife Day 2018 🙂