Found in one of the few remaining wild places on earth—the rugged and stark mountains of Central Asia—the snow leopard is a vision of ethereal beauty and powerful grace. Often referred to as the “Ghost of the Mountain,” snow leopards are solitary and notoriously shy creatures, and are therefore seldom seen by humans in the wild. Yet, ironically, despite their elusive nature, snow leopards are endangered and often because of humans—either as victims of the illegal wildlife trade or as part of retaliatory killings over livestock. Today, only 4,000 or so snow leopards are estimated to remain in the world.
On Monday, October 23, the world celebrated the third International Snow Leopard Day. With the public spotlight still very much on this remarkable and mysterious feline, we’ve decided to examine exactly why the snow leopard is declining so rapidly.
According to a recent report published by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), approximately 450 snow leopards have been killed by poachers since 2008. Unfortunately, the report also indicates that the actual numbers might be far higher, showing a more serious crime level than these numbers indicate. Snow leopards live in high-altitude terrains and in harsh climates, often making it difficult for humans to track them and find conclusive data. In another study published in the journal Biological Conservation, the snow leopard’s natural habitats (the mountain ranges of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) are reportedly under serious threat of disappearing in less than 60 years. This means that by the time our youngest generations are ready to retire, snow leopard habitat and snow leopards are likely to have become extinct.
The forecast for snow leopards is not good, unless we do something to change the circumstances that threaten them.
Some of these factors that threaten their survival include:
Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade – Snow leopards are poached for their luxurious pelts and body parts to supplement the growing trade in traditional medicine prevalent across Central Asia.
Loss of food source – Due to heavy land degradation and illegal hunting, the snow leopards have lost a major portion of their natural prey (ibex, argali, blue sheep, and markor), leaving them with no option but to turn to livestock. This leads to retaliatory killings by humans whose livelihoods often depend on their herds.
Loss of natural habitat and climate change – Land degradation and increasing temperatures forces snow leopards to move higher up into the mountains in search of cooler climates. Unfortunately, there is less vegetation at higher altitudes for wild prey, which means there is less food for snow leopards to eat.
WCN has long supported conservation efforts of snow leopards through our partnership with the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), an organization that works on the ground to study snow leopards, and engage local communities to create harmony between people and snow leopards.
Since the SLC began in 2000, they’ve developed a whole host of community-based programs and initiatives to help the local communities, and transform the perception of snow leopards from “pests” to valuable assets in their eyes. These include: developing livestock corral predator-proofing programs to protect people's herds and address the issue of human-wildlife conflict; creating eco-tourism and livestock insurance programs to address the problem of habitat loss and fragmentation; and developing conservation education programs for herder communities and school children to address the issue of poaching.
With your support, SLC can continue their life-saving work, and we can save this iconic species together. Visit our snow leopard page to learn more on how you can help.