Bhutan, renowned for its unique approach to Gross National Happiness over profit-driven capitalism, is not only a haven for spiritual seekers but also a sanctuary for some of the world’s most enigmatic creatures. Nestled in the rarefied air of this remote Buddhist nation, the elusive snow leopard is making a remarkable comeback, signaling a triumph for conservation in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”
Bhutan, a nation that prioritizes harmony with nature and happiness over economic greed, has long been dedicated to wildlife preservation. Earlier this year, Bhutan celebrated a heartwarming 27 percent increase in its wild tiger population since 2015. This achievement was closely followed by the release of the National Snow Leopard Survey 2022–2023, which unveiled a stunning 39.5 percent surge in the snow leopard population – a remarkable jump from 96 individuals in 2015 to 134 today.
Karma Tshering, Bhutan’s secretary for the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, shared his insights at the survey results’ release event. He underscored the significance of this milestone but also sounded a warning, stating, “It is also a species in peril; the IUCN Red List designates the snow leopard as ‘Vulnerable.’ Without protection, this magnificent species could face extinction in the near future.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) altered the snow leopard’s classification on the Red List from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable” in 2017, marking a significant shift after 45 years. While it typically requires fewer than 2,500 mature adult individuals in the wild for a species to be deemed endangered, experts now estimate that there may be as many as 10,000 snow leopards, though their elusive nature and remote habitats make precise numbers challenging to ascertain.
Bhutan’s ambitious second national survey, spanning over 9,000 square kilometers of snow leopard habitat, deployed 310 camera trap stations. This comprehensive effort yielded an overall density of 1.34 snow leopards per 100 square kilometers, with higher numbers in western Bhutan. It also identified the presence of snow leopards in new locations, reinforcing Bhutan’s role as a crucial stronghold for the species and a potential source population for the region.
The snow leopard, sometimes referred to as the “ghost of the mountains” due to its reclusive nature, inhabits remote mountain terrains across 12 countries, including Bhutan. These nomadic creatures prefer alpine and subalpine zones at elevations between 3,000 and 4,500 meters, where their broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines provides both cover and clear views for hunting prey.
Their diet varies by location but primarily consists of wild goats and sheep, such as the Himalayan blue sheep, Asiatic ibex, and argali. Occasionally, they may clash with human settlements as they hunt domestic livestock. Habitat degradation, prey depletion, human conflict, poaching, and climate change continue to threaten the species.
Bhutan’s commitment to wildlife preservation is evident through its national conservation policy and community-based initiatives, which enlist local communities as stewards of the snow leopard. Deputy Chief Forestry Officer Letro emphasized the impact of these efforts on the increasing snow leopard population.
The success of Bhutan’s National Snow Leopard Survey was made possible through the support of the Bhutan For Life project and WWF-Bhutan, which provided vital field equipment. Chimi Rinzin, WWF-Bhutan’s country director, commended Bhutan’s conservation journey and expressed the organization’s dedication to addressing conflicts and safeguarding both snow leopards and the livelihoods of herder communities.
Bhutan’s commitment to Gross National Happiness extends beyond its human population. This tranquil kingdom, deeply rooted in Vajrayana Buddhism, has emerged as a beacon of hope for the enigmatic snow leopard and a testament to the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. As Bhutan continues to champion conservation, it reminds us all that protecting our world’s wonders is a path to lasting happiness.