Many years ago, Koustubh Sharma was finishing his PhD on the four-horned antelope in Panna Tiger Reserve in the tropical dry deciduous forests of Central India. He was working very closely with Dr Raghu Chundawat who was studying tigers, and also leading surveys on snow leopards — large, elusive creatures who inhabit cold, mountainous environments. Little did he know that several discussions about this mammal and improving the ability to assess its status in remote areas with Dr Chundawat would lead him to his first opportunity to work with them.
Sharma has been fascinated with all wildlife since childhood, but his real interest in the subject started developing in 1993, when he got an opportunity to attend a nature camp deep inside the Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. At this time, and later in life, when he started working on small projects in parts of Central India, the snow leopard was not even on the horizon. While pursuing his Master's in Physics, he got the chance to study the birds of the Bhopal lake and visit the Bombay Natural History Society. His educational background helped him to bag opportunities in biological studies with analyses and develop computer programs to manage datasets. It was only at the end of his PhD that he was introduced to a snow leopard lair, when he was assisting in a project to improve monitoring the animal.
Despite dedicating his life to protecting this cat, Sharma has sighted snow leopards only twice. His most interesting wild encounter was when he came face to face with a male snow leopard in South Gobi, Mongolia. He was looking at an Ibex kill from a ledge when the lead researcher in this project went around the ledge to get a clear view. "I still clearly remember his heavily scarred face and big round eyes, almost as if expressing, ‘How did you get so close to me!’ We looked at each other for a couple of seconds before he turned around and trotted away, like a ribbon waving away in the rocks," he narrates. He joined the Snow Leopard Trust in 2007 and has been working with them ever since; he is now a senior regional ecologist. He is grateful for it, not only because it allows him to work towards conserving this animal, but also because it gave him the opportunity to make friends across the mountains of Central and South Asia and work with wonderful people.
Sharma has worked on a wide variety of projects, ranging from studying the unique four-horned antelope in Central India, assisting in the long-term research on tigers in tropical dry deciduous forest, to advocacy for vulture conservation. "My first engagement with snow leopards involved helping initiate the on-going long-term ecological study in Mongolia, which uses state-of-the-art methods, such as satellite telemetry and digital camera trapping to understand snow leopards and their populations better. It remains the only study in the world where snow leopards are being monitored annually for nearly a decade. It is also the only study where 20 snow leopards have been followed so far intensively using satellite telemetry," he says.
Now, they have expanded their camera trapping efforts to several sites across five snow leopard range countries. He calls his current engagement with the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) Program both challenging and rewarding. He is optimistic about the organisation's efforts, because never before has such political support been garnered for snow leopards at such scales. The future of at least 25 per cent of the snow leopard’s global distribution range will be secured if the goals of the GSLEP program are achieved.
When asked about what the fate of snow leopards is today, Sharma says that the threats to this species are growing and expanding. It is important to note that currently, less than 2 per cent of the known snow leopard range has ever been sampled systematically using scientifically robust techniques, such as camera trapping or analysis of faecal genetics. He says that this leads to a lot of ambiguity about the status of the species as a whole.
The key to snow leopard conservation is partnering with stakeholders ranging from communities to governments. "Several successful models have been pioneered for snow leopard conservation. These include livestock insurance programs to offset losses, livestock vaccination programs to improve tolerance to depredation, predator proof corrals to reduce depredation, livestock grazing-free reserves to improve wild prey populations, capacity building and training of frontline staff to reduce poaching, and snow leopard enterprise to incentivise conservation, among others," explains Sharma.
In this, he says that both governments and citizens can play roles. Governments must strategically scale up the successful conservation models, says Sharma, adding that it is important to assess threats and conduct a situation analysis on ground before implementing any program. "Citizens play one of the most important roles in the conservation of any species or ecosystem. At the end of the day, snow leopards, ibex, birds and insects can’t vote — it is the citizens who need to become their voices, so that we do not lose our natural heritage," he asserts.
In this context, the Global Snow Leopard summit is of utmost importance. "The goal of the GSLEP Program is to secure at least 20 snow leopard landscapes by the year 2020. Since 2017 marks the mid-point of the implementation of the GSLEP Program, it provides an excellent opportunity to take stock of the progress. The Forum is expected to bolster the political and economic support for the conservation of snow leopard and mountain ecosystems," Sharma says. This event is likely to be attended by heads of governments and high level delegations from snow leopard range countries; as well as heads of organisations, scientists, conservationists and celebrities from across the world working or interested in snow leopard conservation. He will be attending it, as India too, will participate in the forum.
Updated Date: Jul 08, 2017 10:46:27 IST