Saturday, 21 January 2017

High Mountain Leopards

Leopards of the mountains

There has been a recent spark on records of common leopards (hereafter referred "leopards") and snow leopards at a same camera trap station, which is circling the social and mainstream medias of conservation concern groups and researchers. It all started after bbc published the news which reports leopards and snow leopards captured at same location in Qinghai of China. The concern was obviously about snow leopards having to share their habitat with much stronger and larger leopards. According to them, this would mean the already endangered snow leopards will have to now compete with their larger cousins for space and food, which can probably result in displacement of snow leopard activity from those regions where leopards are roaming. This news came up in the wake of current ongoing snow leopard conference being held in Kathmandu, Nepal. However, the news is not so much of a new thing in the field. The leopards have been recorded at up to altitude of 5200 m above seal level (asl) in the past. They have been camera-trapped by Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) Nepal in snow leopard habitat in Annapurna region. WWF-Nepal has recorded them in Kanchenjunga region. Non-invasive genetic studies (unpublished) have proved their sympatry in the Himalayas. The recent news have reported similar cases in Manang region. And who knows since how long have they been co-occurring together and its just been into the notice of greater world as the monitoring of much endangered snow leopards are rigorously taking place, whereas leopards have never been accessed in such detail and with much effort. Had leopards' monitoring been given similar priority, their global and local distribution range would have been much different than what it is actually known now, and the phrases such as "leopards are moving higher up" would have never been invented.

It is not a new thing of the present to have two large cats co-existing in the same habitat. Lions and leopards coexist in Africa and Gujarat of India, while similarly, tigers and leopards coexist together in most of present tiger ranges throughout south and south-east Asia. Much recently, tigers are being recorded at higher altitude in Bhutanese Himalayas, where snow leopards occur. And historically, even lions and tigers were known to co-occur together, and this can continue if we drill even more towards prehistoric times when multiple prehistoric super-large sized cats evolved and prowled on this earth together. Cats are very good at maintaining their contacts, they only do it when they want to. Having (larger) leopards in what is known to be snow leopard territory should not be much of a threat to (smaller) snow leopards as this is what nature is bringing upon. There are already lot of human-related threats (poaching, hunting, encroachment etc) against these cats for us to take care of than what the nature is naturally playing.

On the other hand, conservationists should never sound or be biased when it comes to conservation until and unless the threat was really something like "introduced" or "invasive" species cases. If a larger carnivore really threatens the existence of smaller carnivores, what about the lynxes (a small cat, but relatively large in size) that co-share habitat with (larger) snow leopards. Why was it not a threat when much much larger tigers were known to be breeding in snow leopard habitat in Bhutan? I think we should not spend time thinking about this can happen or that can happen, it is all upon nature to decide what has to happen or how it has to happen, rather what we should be thinking about is how can we better protect their ecosystem and let them be just what and how they were and are.

As far as hybridization is concerned, it should not also be much of a concern, because if it does occur, then it occurs, that is also a part of evolution. Hybridization among small cats species is a known scenario, small wild cats of Leopardus genus of the neotropics have been verified to hybridize by genetic studies. In the domestic cat lineage Felis, the hybridization is known and currently occurring events in nature among feral (domestic) cats and wild cats across Europe. In fact, the evolution of cats have itself been shaped by hybridization in the ancient past is what a recent phylogenomic study have proved as.

Hence, if leopards are getting recorded (for first time) in snow leopard habitat, then we should be rather proud that not just one but two big cats prowl this terrain, and hence start acting for their habitat protection and better conservation.


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