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Rare snow leopard sighting in Nepal’s ‘home of tiger’ puzzles conservationists

Snow leopard found in Nepal's plains

A snow leopard found in Urlabari town in Nepal' plains in a cage at the Central Zoo in Kathmandu. Image courtesy of Gobinda Prasad Pokharel

  • Residents of Urlabari town in Nepal’s plains were surprised to spot a snow leopard (Panthera uncia), a species known to live in the mountains.
  • Local authorities, including veterinarians, captured the snow leopard, which had sustained injuries, and treated it at the Central Zoo in Kathmandu.
  • Conservationists and researchers speculate on the reasons for the snow leopard’s presence in the plains, considering possibilities such as climate change, escape from illegal captivity or disorientation during dispersal.

KATHMANDU — Until Tuesday afternoon for residents of Urlabari town in the eastern plains of Nepal, snow leopards (Panthera uncia) were animals they knew little about. The leopards they knew well were their cousins, the common leopards (Panthera pardus) that visit the town regularly and sometimes attack their livestock.

But snow leopards are nof the talk of town in Urlabari (which translates to “home of the tiger” in the local Santhal language), where the “ghosts of the mountains” have not been reported in recent years, and a hot topic of discussion among conservationists.

It all started on the morning of Jan. 23 when residents of Charghare settlement in Urlabari Municipality-1 spotted a “strange looking” animal near the woods. Fearing that it might attack people or livestock, they unsuccessfully tried to shoo away the animal and even pelted a few stones at it. They called the police, who couldn’t capture the big cat. Eventually, veterinarians from the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) based in the nearby Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve darted and captured the animal and identified it as a snow leopard.

“The vets darted the animal, which had suffered some injuries. The animal is now receiving treatment at the Central Zoo in Kathmandu,” said Gobinda Prasad Pokharel, NTNC conservation officer.

The incident has prompted conservationists and researchers to come up with possible explanations, as tigers (Panthera tigris) have long been considered the apex predators of the country’s plains, common leopards as reigning in the hills and snow leopards ruling the mountains. Exceptions to this long-held belief have been reported with camera traps photographing tigers roaming the hills and common leopards the mountains. But this is the first time in living memory that a snow leopard has been photographed in the plains.

While climate change is the usual suspect, researchers say they believe the snow leopard found in Urlabari may have come there after escaping illegal captivity; others say it could have lost its way during dispersal.

“Looking at the photographs being circulated in the media, I observed that the snow leopard is a bit malnourished,” veteran conservationist Karan Shah told Mongabay. “It might be possible that someone held it captive, they couldn’t meet its nutrition requirements and somehow it managed to escape,” he added.

In July 2022, an American black vulture (Coragyps atratus) was discovered in southern Nepal, thousands of miles away from its known natural habitats. Back then also, leading ornithologists said they believed the bird may have escaped from illegal captivity.

Snow leopard researcher Madhu Chetri, head of Gaurishankar Conservation Area Project, said he believes the snow leopard, which to him appears to be a subadult, may have lost its way during dispersal. “We have seen that in the case of solitary carnivores such as snow leopards, young ones scout around looking for suitable habitats after leaving the care of their mothers,” he added. “They travel long distances during the process,” he said.

This particular snow leopard may have become disoriented for some reason and headed south instead of heading north, said the researcher, whose team recently photographed a common leopard and a snow leopard at the same location in the Gaurishanker area in Nepal in January 2023.

Conservationist Rama Mishra, who studies fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) in Nepal’s eastern plains, said she wasn’t surprised that a snow leopard was found in Urlabari. “One thing that we need to remember is that although there’s this big altitudinal gradient in Nepal, the north-south distance between the plains and the mountains is not that long,” she said. “During my fishing cat studies, I found that the cats travel long distances. Snow leopards are bigger and faster than fishing cats and can travel even longer distances,” Mishra added. “They might have been coming to the plains in the past also, but this time they encountered humans by chance.”

Back at the Central Zoo in Kathmandu, officials say the snow leopard will remain under observation for some time before it is released into the wild. “It would be nice to have a snow leopard at the zoo, but we don’t have the facility to meet its needs,” an official said.

“We may never find out why the snow leopard ventured into Urlabari,” said Chetri. “It would be a good idea to radio-collar the animal when it is released back into the wild to try to find answers.”

Banner image: A snow leopard found in Urlabari town in Nepal’ plains in a cage at the Central Zoo in Kathmandu. Image courtesy of Gobinda Prasad Pokharel/ NTNC.

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @arj272.

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