KATHMANDU — Nepali researchers have yet again photographed a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and common leopard (P. pardus) in the same location in the lap of Mount Gaurishankar in the eastern Himalayas.
The recently analyzed images captured in Lapchi Valley at an altitude of 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level show a snow leopard strolling a human trail leading to the border with Tibet on Jan. 4, 2023. A common leopard was photographed by the same camera trap seven days later.
“This is the first time that a snow leopard and a common leopard have been photographed in the same location in the Gaurishankar area,” says Madhu Chetri from the National Trust for Nature Conservation, a semi-government body overseeing the Gaurishankar Conservation Area.
Conservationists traditionally considered endangered tigers (P. tigris) as the apex predators of Nepal’s southern plains, vulnerable common leopards as roaming the country’s hills, and vulnerable snow leopards as keeping farther north in the mountains. But that arrangement may be changing fast as the planet heats up, researchers say.
According to Chetri, the images were taken by camera traps deployed in Lapchi between November 2022 and May 2023. A total of 26 camera traps were installed to cover an area of 141.63 sq km (54.68 sq mi). Researchers, including Chetri, recently had been analyzing the 55,219 images taken by the camera traps when they came across the snow leopard and common leopard image.
The conservation area is located south of the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve, Tibet’s largest nature reserve. “It is rich in both floral and faunal diversity due to its diverse physiographic and climatic zones,” Chetri tells Mongabay.
In July 2016, researchers studying China’s Tibetan Plateau for the first time obtained video footage of a snow leopard and a common leopard living in the same area. Similarly, in 2013, a team of Italian researchers analyzing scat samples from Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park also found that snow leopards and common leopards coexist in the same area. They observed that the cats exploit different prey species and separate their habitats. While common leopards tend to prey on smaller, more abundant species in lower elevations, snow leopards focus on larger, less abundant species at higher elevations, according to their findings.
Researcher Bikram Shrestha, who has worked on snow leopards, says his team also captured images of both cats in the same area in a survey carried out between 2011 and 2013 in Nepal’s Mustang region at an altitude of 4,500 m (14,764 ft). However, the finding hasn’t been documented in a peer-reviewed study.
Various studies have shown that climate change is increasingly pushing both leopards (and tigers) farther north in search of suitable habitat, encroaching on the territory of snow leopards. Kedar Baral, a conservationist who studied potential impacts of climate change on the habitat and distribution of common leopards, says interactions between snow leopards and common leopards could become more common due to climate change as habitats previously unsuitable for common leopards at higher altitudes become suitable.
“Researchers have shown that up to 50% of the current snow leopard habitat in the Himalayas could be altered due to shifting tree lines, which will ultimately lead to shrinkage of snow leopard habitats and alpine zones,” says Chetri.
Rinzin Phunjok Lama, who has been working with Himalayan communities to save snow leopards, says he believes that common leopards may have been sharing habitats with snow leopards in the past also. But in the past few years, as more and more camera trap images are showing the habitat of the two species overlap, common leopards could indeed be moving north.
As the tree line shifts upward, common leopards are at an advantage as they can easily climb trees, but snow leopards, which are smaller in size, can’t do that, he adds.
Researchers say that long-term data would be required to look at how the two species interact and what impact one will have on the other. But the indications are ominous. “Between 2011 and 2013, our camera traps show photographed a snow leopard and a common leopard in the same area in Mustang,” says Bikram Shrestha. “But in 2016, we could only photograph common leopards,” he says.
“The plausible reason might be the displacement of snow leopards by common leopards,” he adds. “But we would need more extensive research to see if that’s what actually happened.”
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