An image of the elusive snow leopard, one of the world's endangered species of big cats, was recently captured on camera in Kumaon, Himalayas, in northern India.

Officials of the Uttarakhand forest department said that the camera trap image of the animal provides the first ever documented proof of the species' presence in the Kumaon region, albeit the big feline is known to also lurk in the wilds in other areas of the state.

"It's the first photographic evidence of the snow leopard's presence in Kumaon region. Through the evidence, [the] forest department would be able to prepare better conservation strategy for this endangered species," said Vipul Maurya, who is studying the presence of snow leopards in the greater Himalayas.

The snow leopard was caught in the Bageshwar district at an altitude of 4,100 meters above sea level on June 29. The state of Uttarakhand is in northern India and borders Tibet to the north and Nepal to the east.

Officials said that the latest photo offers irrefutable proof that there are no fewer than 11 snow leopards in the state, one of the country's richest biodiversity hotspots. The wilds of Kumaon are primarily known for their big cat population with leopards and the Royal Bengal Tiger documented to prowl here.

"Snow leopards have been here since a long time, but it's really great to get one on camera," said Maurya, who is a part of a special projected launched in 2013 to study the presence of the big cat, the availability of its prey in the area as well as the presence of high-altitude carnivores and wildlife in Bageshwar district.

The animal's presence in the area also indicated the presence of its prey, which include the bharal, or blue sheep; tahr, a cousin of the wild goat; and musk deer. The photo shows that the cat is in good health and moving ahead. Researchers will conduct an analysis and DNA profiling to determine the kind of prey the rare cat feeds on.

The snow leopard is a great mountain climber characterized by smoky-gray fur, which helps the animal camouflage against the rocky slopes. The animal remains one of the world's most mysterious cats and is among the least studied large wild cats.

The survival of the animal is crucial because it is the apex of mountain ecosystem. It is also considered an indicator species for high altitudes.

The number of snow leopards is estimated to be about 500 in the country. The animal is often monitored based on its tracks and pug, or footprint, marks.

Photo: Linda Stanley | Flickr 

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