To get the exact numbers of the snow leopards in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, a maiden population assessment expedition of the endangered species was launched on Tuesday. The focus of the expedition will be on identifying the areas housing the snow leopards.

J-K Chief Wildlife Warden Suresh Kumar Gupta flagged off a 48-member strong expedition divided into 12 teams from Manda Zoo Jammu for Kishtwar high altitude national park spread over an area of 2,195.50 square kilometres under the Project Snow Leopard of the Ministry of Environment.

He said the department is planning to complete the survey in May-June next year to ensure the inclusion of exact data of snow leopard population in J&K in the national database likely to be released by the central government in October.

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"The snow leopard population assessment exercise is underway in six states and Union Territories (UTs) of the country and Jammu and Kashmir has now become part of it by formally launching the expedition after getting approval from the government," Gupta said.

"We are planning to complete the assessment which is a very risky task due to multiple challenges including inclement weather and difficult topography. However, this is the best time for the exercise as the nomad population descend towards the plains from the higher reaches and so do the wild animals as well," he said.

Earlier focus was only on Ladakh

Before the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two UTs, the successive governments focussed only on Ladakh for the conservation of snow leopards even though these species are also found in other parts of Jammu and Kashmir.

"Such a survey has never been taken in Jammu and Kashmir so far as the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir kept its focus of the snow leopard conservation programme on Ladakh, which has a high density of the snow leopard population in the world", Gupta informed, adding, "After the reorganization of J&K, a detailed project report under snow population assessment in India was formed and submitted to the government in April this year and the Union Government has approved the project to survey snow leopards".

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Gupta informed that there was photographic evidence of the presence of snow leopards in the upper reaches of Kishtwar besides Gurez. "People also informed about the presence of snow leopards in Thajiwas and Awoora top in central Kashmir but the exact picture will emerge only after the survey", Gupta said.

Bengaluru-based institute to conduct DNA analysis

Giving details about the whole exercise, Gupta said that the teams will survey the population of the snow leopards as per the protocol and identify their habitats. "Besides camera traps, the team will also look for hair samples, scat, and other evidence which would be sent to a Bengaluru-based central government institute for DNA analysis to ensure perfect data after completion of the exercise," Gupta told media persons.

He said preparations are underway in Kashmir to dispatch separate teams to the snow-covered areas where the snow leopards have been found.

Chief wildlife warden launching snow leopard population assessment expedition

The J&K government has roped in resource personnel from the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) who trained teams in both Jammu and Kashmir divisions for the survey.

IUCN lists snow leopards as endangered species

Listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the snow leopards are mostly found at an altitude between 3,000 and 4,500 metres and have been sighted in the snow-bound areas of the Kishtwar national park, its adjoining areas in the Jammu region and parts of central and north Kashmir.

The snow leopard is a part of a species recovery programme of the Government of India. Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand are already covered under the programme.

Ladakh has declared snow leopard as 'state animal'

On September 1, the Ladakh administration has declared Snow Leopard as 'state animal' and Black-necked Crane as 'state bird'.

As per a notification issued by Dr. Pawan Kotwal, Principal Secretary Forest, Ecology and Environment, UT of Ladakh, "The Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Ladakh is pleased to declare "Snow Leopard" (Panthera uncia), and "Blacked-Necked Crane" (Grus nigricollis) as State Animal, and State Bird, respectively of the Union Territory of Ladakh from the date of issue of this notification."

Ladakh is home to over 50% of India's snow leopards

The mountainous region of the western and eastern Himalayas is the habitat of snow leopards in India. They are primarily found in Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.

According to official figures, there are about 7,500 snow leopards left in the world, 500 of which are in India. The high-altitude cold desert of Ladakh is home to about half of them.

In India, the geographical range of snow leopard encompasses a large part of the western Himalayas including the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas.