The Elusive Snow Leopard: Threats and Conservation
About Snow Leopards
Snow Leopards inhabit several areas of central and south Asia, including China, Mongolia, India, Pakistan, and Nepal. They live in mountain ranges at heights of 3,000 metres or more, and they have thick coats to protect them from the cold conditions. Their fur is grey and white, providing excellent camouflage for the areas they inhabit. They also have large paws which act as natural snowshoes, preventing them from sinking into the snow.
The preferred habitat of the snow leopard is typically cold and dry with rocky terrain. They are solitary cats, who tend to have defined home ranges. In areas with a lot of prey the range may be 30 km, but where there is less prey the range can be over 1000 km.
Snow leopards tend to be shy and elusive, and generally are not aggressive towards humans.
They are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List. The exact number of snow leopards living in the wild is not known, but it could be fewer than 4000. It is estimated that their population may have declined by 20% during the last two decades.
One of the main threats to snow leopards is poaching. They are targeted for their beautiful fur, as well as their bones which are used in traditional medicine. It is thought that between 220 and 450 cats are killed for the illegal wildlife trade each year.
Poaching also takes away some of the snow leopard's prey. Animals such as sheep and goats are also hunted, sometimes illegally, in areas where snow leopards live. The decline in their prey means that they sometimes eat livestock, and are killed by farmers.
Habitat loss is also a threat. When areas for grazing livestock are expanded, this encroaches on the snow leopard's territory. This can increase conflict with humans, as livestock can be attacked when the natural prey of the snow leopard is in short supply. Their habitat is also under threat from developments such as new roads and mines.
Climate change is a major issue which could decrease their natural habitat. As temperatures rise, they need to move to higher elevations. At greater heights there is less vegetation, meaning that the plant eating prey of the snow leopard will be more scarce in these areas.
Snow leopards are important for the natural environment. Without them, their main prey of sheep and goats could overgraze the habitat which would leave no food for other forms of wildlife. There are various organisations taking action to help the snow leopards.
One of the main issues that need to be tackled is the illegal wildlife trade. In August 2017 the leaders of the 12 countries that snow leopards inhabit recognised tackling wildlife crime as a priority. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, campaigns for measures to stop poaching and secure convictions. Wildlife crime databases could help to combat the trade, as well as effective networking between enforcement agencies.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) supports projects that aim to control the illegal wildlife trade, along with projects that could reduce conflict between snow leopards and humans. The measures taken to reduce conflict include building leopard proof pens for livestock and setting up compensation schemes for farmers.
Efforts are being made worldwide to tackle climate change, which is a threat to numerous species including the snow leopard. Governments have committed to reducing emissions with the aim of keeping the global increase in temperature below 2C. WWF is campaigning to increase the use of renewable energy.
There has been some success in the campaign to save snow leopards. A conservation project was started by WWF Mongolia in 1997 which has seen a decline in the illegal hunting of snow leopards. However, illegal hunting is still a major problem. Campaigns to educate the public have also been found to be effective.
With many organisations campaigning to save the snow leopard, there is hope that the number living in the wild will begin to increase.