Snow leopard habitat in Bhutan and the neighboring Himalayan countries could be substantially wiped out if green house emissions continue to increase
In what could be a described as a disaster for the elusive mountain cat, a recent study carried out by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found out that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, snow leopards’ habitat in the Himalayas could be lost substantially.
According to the study that grouped potential changes in the alpine and forest zones under three climate scenarios of low emissions, medium emissions and high emissions, Bhutan could lose upto 30% of its snow leopard habitats to tree line shift and shrinking of the alpine zone if greenhouse gas emissions continues to increase.
The findings reveal that in the Himalayan mountain range under high emissions scenario, Bhutan can lose about 55% of its current snow leopard habitat, while the habitat in Nepal can decrease by as much as 40% and India and China can lose about 25% of their existing habitat.
The study also states that if emissions remain relatively low and begin to decrease below the current levels, by 2050 up to 10% of snow leopard habitat could be lost as snow leopards will be left with limited capacity to adapt physiologically and ecologically to warming conditions.
“In terms of absolute extent of habitat loss China and India which have the most snow leopard habitat would lose considerably more habitat than Nepal and Bhutan,” states the study. Most of the habitat loss would be along southern, peripheral areas of the snow leopard range, and in the deep river valleys that incise the mountains.
The study estimated Bhutan’s original area for snow leopard habitat to be 4,900 square kilometers.
Under the low emission scenario, Bhutan would be left with 4,600 square kilometers, 3,200 square kilometers under medium emissions scenario and 2,200 square kilometers under high emissions scenario.
Further, due to the general warming conditions the elusive mountain cat would have to contend with resource competition from other species, like common leopards, wild dogs, and tigers, which are better adapted to forest habitats.
The upper altitude of snow leopards and their prey will be determined by their physiological tolerance for oxygen deprivation.
While passes above 5,500 meters could act as dispersal corridors, it is unlikely that snow leopards will be able to live and hunt at these altitudes without the benefits of long term physiological adaptations.
Last year, a study carried out by Bhutan’s newest national park, Wangchuck Centennial Park; “Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the WCP”, found out that a warming trend in the Himalayas could cause the elevation of the tree line to increase and thereby reduce the size of the alpine zone available to snow leopards between tree line and the upper limits of their altitude range imposed by oxygen limits.
“The tree lines are moving up and covering the alpine areas. This will create problems for snow leopards which live in an alpine zone,” said the Program Officer, Fresh Water and Climate Change, WWF, Phurba Lhendup.
He said this will lead to the loss and shift in habitat. “Many species might change their habitat and there might have to be re-designation of core habitat areas,” he said.
The report says that the climate model predicts a shrinking of core areas, habitat fragmentation, and loss of connectivity under climate change due to change from alpine to forest habitat.
Currently, the population of the endangered species is roughly estimated between 4,000 to 6,500 and is sparsely distributed in the mountains of northern and central Asia including part of the Himalayan Mountains.
While no formal study has been done to study the exact number of the cats in Bhutan, few records show that there are 100 to 200 cats in Bhutan while its global population is expected to be around 3,500 to 7,000.
http://www.businessbhutan.bt/?p=10291 published in Business Bhutan