The Plight of the Snow Leopard

A rapidly changing climate is destroying the snow leopard’s natural habitat in Asia’s high mountains — and one third of the world’s water sources.

Asia’s alpine ecosystems are the points of origin for many of humanity’s most economically critical rivers, including the Yangtze, the Ganges, and the Mekong. They are also home to the emblematic snow leopard, whose limited habitat is threatened by the warming climate. 

The snow leopard species as a whole serves as one of the planet’s most accurate health indicators. They are listed as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, with only about 4,500 to about 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild as of 2016.

These animals are threatened by human conflict, poaching, and habitat loss. The changing climate adds an additional challenge, forcing snow leopards into higher elevations as the alpine ecosystems retreat, causing a dangerous overlap of predator territories. 

Global Action

Twelve countries enveloping the snow leopard’s native range came together in 2013 at the first Global Snow Leopard Forum (GSLF) held in Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic. Here representatives from many nations and conservation partners from around the world signed the Bishkek Declaration, which states:

“[they] acknowledge that the snow leopard is an irreplaceable symbol of our nations’ natural and cultural heritage and an indicator of the health and sustainability of mountain ecosystems; and recognize that mountain ecosystems inhabited by snow leopards provide essential ecosystem services, including storing and releasing water from the origins of river systems benefitting one-third of the world’s human population; sustaining the pastoral and agricultural livelihoods of local communities which depend on biodiversity for food, fuel, fodder, and medicine; and offering inspiration, recreation, and economic opportunities.”

Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program

Panthera is the only organization in the world devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s big cats. Its Snow Leopard Program is established in five countries across Asia including India, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

The program utilizes the most advanced technologies to monitor wildlife, collecting data to better understand how to preserve the species. Dr. Tom McCarthy, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Program, stated to Roaring Earth, “We’ve been working on snow leopard conservation in Asia since 2008, when I joined Panthera.”

During his interview with us, he thoroughly explained the reach of the program across environmental, community, and national levels. GPS collaring, camera traps, and developing genetic technologies are allowing scientists to more efficiently analyze the vast ranges of these creatures and provide for a better understanding of how to protect them.

Panthera has outlined specific conservation approaches that will help save this endangered animal while also provide for the people that share their high mountain homes.

Conservation in Action

“Currently we have a radio collaring project underway in Kyrgyzstan being led by University of Washington PhD students that work under us there, using the most advanced versions of the satellite collars. These collars usually last between 18-20 months,” McCarthy explained. 

While GPS satellite collars are an effective way to develop an understanding of the ecology of the species as a whole, there are also less invasive measures that can be implemented.

“Camera traps help us understand distribution of snow leopards, habitat use, population size, and reproductive patterns,” McCarthy continued. 

In addition, burgeoning genetic analysis from fecal samples can identify individual animals, determine sex, and get population estimates, but with enough information genetic analysis could be the key to answering more in-depth questions regarding the genetic flow of animals between different areas.

As Dr. McCarthy states to Roaring Earth, “It is the thing of the future, and what we are working on, trying to better understand the relationship of snow leopards across the range.” 

Human-Animal Conflict

In addition to habitat loss, snow leopards face many other substantial dangers including poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. The AHM and TRAFFIC have recently published a report that measures the killing and trade of snow leopards from 2003-2016, titled “An Ounce of Prevention: Snow Leopard Crime Revisited.”

McCarthy explains how in addition to poaching, human conflict is the biggest conservation concern for snow leopards. Killing these animals as retribution for livestock is a prominent issue in local herding communities. An overlap of grazing grounds between livestock and wild sheep and goats (the snow leopard’s natural prey) also creates scarcity of food for snow leopards, which make them more likely to turn to livestock for sustenance.

“We have extensive community-based conservation programs across the region tailored to the specific needs of the communities we work with,” states McCarthy.  

Panthera has several initiatives in different countries that are working on a community level to help handle these human-conflict issues.

“We do a lot of corral improvements in India (with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust). We’ve expanded that into Tajikistan — improving more than 130 livestock corrals in a number of village areas,” says McCarthy. “Additionally, in Pakistan, working through our in-country partner, the Snow Leopard Foundation, we help people vaccinate their livestock because people lose far more livestock to disease than predators. In turn, they tolerate snow leopards. Its a win-win situation and it works very well.”

To top it off, Panthera’s efforts include helping poor local communities find alternative livelihoods. They are currently training people in India to support the booming ecotourism industry.

A Voice for the Snow Leopard

“People are starting to understand snow leopards are very, very valuable when they are alive,” McCarthy confirms. 

The AHM Project and Panthera embrace Asia’s high mountains, the snow leopards, and the local communities that reside there on a symbiotic level, effectively understanding and relaying how each individual aspect effects the other.

Supporting conservation of the snow leopard in turn helps preserve the landscapes of Asia’s high mountains, irreplaceable water sources for the world, and the local communities that reside there.

Saving the snow leopard could help save the world.