WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The elusive, endangered snow leopard is apparently thriving in a park in Bhutan, as seen in camera trap images released on Tuesday by the government of Bhutan and World Wildlife Fund.
Over 10,000 pictures of the snow leopards were captured last October and November by four cameras placed in Wangchuck Centennial Park as part of a survey conducted by Bhutan and WWF.
Unaware of the camera, one animal walks up to the lens, while an adult female and a young snow leopard pace a few steps away. Another image shows an adult feline nearly invisible against a stony Himalayan background.
Most significantly, a video clip shows one adult leopard scent-marking its territory, a way to communicate with other snow leopards about gender and breeding status. It also can show there is a resident animal, not one that is just passing through.
That is important, because the snow leopard is threatened by retaliatory killings by herders, habitat lost to farmers and poaching for their spotted pelts. There are an estimated 4,500 to 7,500 in the wild.
The camera trap evidence shows core snow leopard habitat in Wangchuck Centennial Park, which functions as a corridor between Jigme Dorji National Park to the west and Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary in the east. The survey is meant to figure out how many snow leopards are in Wangchuck park and where they are, in order to target the best places for conservation.
Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, snow leopard populations are suspected to have declined by at least 20 percent in the last 16 years due to habitat loss and the loss of prey.
Their habitat -- above the tree line but below the snow line -- is a narrow band that is expected to get narrower due to climate change, survey leader Rinjan Shrestha said in a telephone interview.
As trees are able to grow at higher altitudes, snow leopards may be pushed further uphill, but could be constrained by limited oxygen at high altitude.
Warming at high elevations in the Himalayas is occurring at three times the global average. If climate-warming greenhouse emissions continue at a low level, 10 percent of snow leopard habitat could be lost, WWF said.
Under a high emissions scenario, about 30 percent of habitat could be vulnerable, Shrestha said.
"Its habitat is relatively narrow in Bhutan compared to other parts of its terrain," Shrestha said from Toronto. "That's why I was not sure we could see many in Bhutan."
The cameras also showed a healthy population of blue sheep, the snow leopard's main prey.
Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Sandra Maler