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A Senior Regional Ecologist with the Snow Leopard Trust, Koustubh Sharma has worked in some of the remotest and toughest terrains in the world – where his work is contributing to a greater understanding of snow leopard ecology. He speaks with Lakshmy Raman about his current work involving policymakers, conservationists and organisations from snow leopard range countries and why he believes that building capacity and training local researchers and conservationists is the best way to secure the long-term future of the ‘grey ghost’.

What first got you interested in snow leopards?

Their sheer elusiveness! Despite several attempts to study them over the years, little was (is still) known about these cats. This is perhaps due to their evolutionary advantage of being able to melt into and occupy mountainous and tough terrain, and breathe in inhospitably thin air! My fascination for technology and its applications to reduce the evolutionary gap between humans and snow leopards was perhaps the main driver that got me hooked on to snow leopards.

What did you study?

I did my Masters in Physics from the University of Bhopal. It was during this period that I also conducted a small study on the avian fauna of Bhopal, and developed my first stand-alone software to help identify birds. This led to my association with BNHS where I later joined as a Research Analyst. I carried out field research for four years in Panna National Park on Ecology, Distribution and Behaviour of Four-horned antelope and obtained my PhD from the Mumbai University.

My academic interests lie in quantitative ecology, population ecology, conservation biology, and ecological and GIS modeling. Study designs, data analyses, developing application algorithm for specific, and training are my inclinations in addition to conducting field work in remote locations.

Who inspired you on this path?

I have been fortunate to have had some of the greatest mentors including my parents who never forced me into becoming an ‘engineer or a doctor’. The person who introduced me to snow leopards was Dr. Raghu Chundawat, considered one of the pioneers of snow leopard studies. I worked with him when he was studying tigers in the Panna Tiger Reserve. His stories and photos from Ladakh, Xinjiang (China) and Sarychat (Kyrgyzstan) fascinated me. I also owe thanks to Dr. Asad Rahmani for his faith in me that I would be able to study, despite my background in Physics, the four-horned antelope, another difficult-to-spot species.He trusted me on a five-year doctorate project in the Panna Tiger Reserve. Even before that in 1993, had it not been for Giridhar Kinhal and Manoj Misra, two forest officers from the Madhya Pradesh cadre, who organised a nature camp in the Churna, Satpura Tiger Reserve, I would have never experienced the bliss of being in the wilderness.

A wild snow leopard shortly after it caught a marmot in the Sarychat Ertash State Nature Reserve, Kyrgyzstan. Marmots contribute to a small part of the cat’s diet in many parts of its range, particularly during the summer. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust/Snow Leopard Foundation-Kyrgyzstan/State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry.

Tell me about your most memorable encounter in the wild… was it seeing a snow leopard?

In 10 years, I have seen the cat in the wild twice. Yes, that’s how elusive they are! Apart from these two sightings, there is one incident that I remember fondly. Our team had just radio-collared the first adult female snow leopard for our long-term research project in South Gobi, Mongolia. We had nearly abandoned the site to set up snares as we were worried that the goats of a local herder, Gana, who could not move to another pasture, would trip the snares repeatedly. Gana, however, encouraged us to stay, and show him the snares so he could keep his goats away. As luck would have it, there was a snow leopard in the snare the same night. Once Orjan, our field biologist and the lead researcher on the telemetry project, had tranquilised the cat, we invited Gana to join us. Despite it being one in the morning, he joined us at the capture site within 10 minutes. This was the first time he was seeing a snow leopard despite living amidst them. We asked him to name the cat! Touching her gingerly, he took a few seconds and suggested ‘Khashaa’, meaning Jade in Mongolian. It was also his daughter’s name! After collaring and releasing the cat, the next evening when Orjan went to reset his snares, he found some money tucked under a rock. Gana had left an offering to the mountain gods for the well-being of Khashaa, though we never asked which one! The overwhelming emotions of this episode make it my most memorable field story until today.

What was your first project?

My first project was to look for a site that potentially had enough snow leopards to initiate the first ever long-term study on the species. Nine years since, the project is still running strong with more than 23 cats collared and unprecedented data from camera trapping over nine years providing us with a never-before-acquired insight into their population, behaviour, movements, dispersal, birthing and mortality!

Today you are a Senior Regional Ecologist with the Snow Leopard Trust – tell us about your journey.

It has been a wonderful journey. Apart from having spent time in some of the most pristine habitats across Asia, I have been fortunate to be part of teams that are contributing to our understanding of snow leopard ecology. One of the most rewarding aspects is gaining friends from various parts of the globe. I firmly believe that even the best scientists doing field research or analysis of data, cannot replace what local researchers and conservationists can achieve. Apart from conducting primary research, the focus of my work has been on building capacity and providing training that can bridge the gap between developments in research and analytical techniques, and their implementation in the field.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently devoting much of my time to the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme that brings together governments from 12 snow leopard range countries, policymakers, institutions, organisations and conservationists toward securing the future of snow leopards and their mountains. While the task of coordinating a programme of this scale is monumental, it has huge potential to secure the future of snow leopards and their mountain ecosystems. Although non-government organisations are working to successfully implement research and community-based conservation programmes, they perhaps may never be able to scale it up to the level that governments can. Going by an equation in Physics, where work done = mass x displacement, even if the government attempts a few positive steps, the impact will be enormous. The purpose of this programme is to provide scalability to the several conservation and research programmes that have been piloted and implemented elsewhere.

I am also working on analyses and interpretation of our camera trapping and genetic sampling data. This will help improve the inferences that we can make from such datasets. Surprisingly, despite the many years of research, we still have data from systematic sampling of snow leopard populations from less than two per cent of its entire range. We hope to use the advancements in technology and statistics in the past one decade to improve our ability to estimate populations of endangered species such as the snow leopard with more confidence and rigour.

Snow leopard skins were widely used for decorative purposes as seen in this image taken in a ger (a type of tent) in Mongolia in 2006. It’s illegal in all range countries today to buy or sell any snow leopard parts. Photo: Teri Akin.

What would you say is the most pressing issue you face as a cat/mammal biologist today?

The most crucial aspect of working with wildlife, especially elusive predators, is that of engaging with people, whether it is local communities, frontline staff of Protected Areas, experts, officials, politicians or corporates. Everyone brings valuable expertise, knowledge and a viewpoint. It is not surprising that most innovations and developments in the field of wildlife research and conservation have come from effective collaborations and partnerships between experts and stakeholders from various cross-cutting streams.

What are the key challenges facing the snow leopard?

While some of the threats to these cats have remained unchanged, we also have several emerging threats. For instance, poorly-planned infrastructure and mining in snow leopard habitats is directly impacting this elusive feline. This cat represents an ecosystem that plays a vital role in the water supply for more than a billion people and is among the most sensitive to climate change. Not only is the changing weather regime and vegetation a key challenge, these also amplify conventional threats such as decline in prey and rise in human-wildlife conflict. Given, the remoteness of the locations, studying and developing conservation strategies is not easy.