The National Snow Leopard Survey 2022-23 Confirms 134 snow leopards in the country

Thimphu, 16th September 2023. Bhutan embarked on the journey to conduct the second national snow leopard (Panthera uncia) survey in 2022 using the most robust and state-of-the-art camera trapping approach. Snow leopard habitats spanning over 9000 km sq. across the northern alpine landscape of Bhutan were surveyed by installing 310 camera trap stations.

The survey confirmed the presence of 134 snow leopards in Bhutan, with an overall density of 1.34 snow leopards per 100 km sq. This is a modest increase from the 2016 baseline, where 96 individuals were counted. Snow leopard density was comparatively higher in western Bhutan than in central and eastern Bhutan. Snow leopards were also captured from new locations such as Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and low-elevation regions of Divisional Forest Office, Thimphu.

In his keynote address, the Honourable Secretary of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, Mr Karma Tshering, remarked that the survey results are compelling evidence confirming Bhutan as a stronghold for snow leopards. “However, it is also a species in peril; the IUCN Red List designates the snow leopard as Vulnerable. Without protection, this magnificent species could face extinction in the near future.” He said.

With a vast expanse of suitable snow leopard habitats spread across the northern part of the country adjoining neighbouring countries of India (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh) and China (Tibetan plateau), Bhutan can undoubtedly serve as a source population for snow leopards in the region.

Found in twelve countries across central and south Asia and extending to the mountains of southern Siberia in the north, snow leopards are threatened by habitat degradation, prey depletion, conflicts with humans, and climate change. The global population of snow leopards is declining. However, in Bhutan, the results of the national survey indicate that conservation efforts in the country are having a positive impact on maintaining the viable population of snow leopards. The snow leopard is listed under Schedule I of the Forests and Nature Conservation Act 2023, and an illegal act against the species is an offence of fourth-degree felony.

The National Snow Leopard Survey 2022-2023 was executed with funding support from the Bhutan For Life Program, and WWF Bhutan supported the field surveyors with field gear.

“It is indeed exciting to learn that the snow leopard population in Bhutan is increasing, and this result indicates the healthy alpine mountain ecosystem, which is a critical water source for millions of people downstream. Bhutan for Life is privileged to be part of this conservation initiative through our financing mechanism.” Dr. Pema Wangda, the Executive Director of the Bhutan for Life Fund Secretariat, said.

“The increase in snow leopard number is yet another milestone achievement for Bhutan’s conservation journey. It clearly demonstrates the government’s leadership and conservation ethos of the highland communities.” Mr. Chimi Rinzin, the Country Director for WWF Bhutan, said. “WWF is fully cognizant of the challenges of increasing conflict, and we will strive towards addressing this issue to sustain the future of snow leopards while safeguarding the livelihoods of the herder communities”.

Other key observations from the survey were the evidence of habitat overlap between snow leopards and other large carnivores like tiger and common leopard and the capture of a deer species called White-lipped deer/Thorold’s deer (Cervus albirostris) from Divisional Forest Offices, Paro, which is a new species record for the country.

The survey was completed by over 70 frontline rangers from the protected areas of Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve, Jigme Dorji National Park, Wangchuck Centennial National Park, Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, and Divisional Forest Offices of Paro and Thimphu.

Conservation partners like the Bhutan Foundation, Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation, WWF Bhutan, and UNDP Bhutan also support various snow leopard conservation initiatives in the country.

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