‘Protecting snow leopards benefits other species’: Q&A with Rinzin Phunjok Lama

‘Protecting snow leopards benefits other species’: Q&A with Rinzin Phunjok Lama

KATHMANDU — Think of big cats in Nepal, and you’ll probably picture a Bengal tiger. And while the country is famous for the Panthera tigris that prowl its southern plains — and for its efforts in doubling their population over the past decade — there’s another, lesser-known, big cat in the country’s north, lurking high in the craggy Trans-Himalayan mountains.

Ask Rinzin Phunjok Lama, and he’ll tell you everything there is to know about the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Based in Humla, a district on Nepal’s border with Tibet, Lama is a conservation biologist who’s been working in the field since 2014. He’s studied snow leopards for years, and today trains others on how to study them: how to use surveys and camera traps to better their odds of catching a glimpse of this elusive predator at nose-bleeding altitudes.

There are an estimated 300-400 snow leopards in Nepal, out of a global population that’s thought to range from roughly 4,700-8,700. That’s more than the country’s tiger population, at about 250, but you wouldn’t know it going by numbers of live sightings alone.

“Even people working on their conservation see them only once or twice in their careers,” Lama says.

He adds the snow leopard is considered an indicator of a healthy environment: where the apex predator thrives, other species all the way down the food chain also do well. But it faces mounting threats, largely from conflict with humans and climate change. The former stems from the snow leopards preying on livestock, which triggers retaliatory killings. The government maintains a policy of compensating livestock owners for any animals that they lose to snow leopards and tigers.

Lead Image: Snow leopard at ease in its high-mountain habitat. Image courtesy of Madhu Chetri.

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