Snow leopards are currently found in twelve countries where they occupy the remote mountain ranges of Central Asia. They inhabit some of the harshest conditions of any species, amid towering mountain ranges and in often subzero conditions, but these cats are supremely adapted to the harsh and rugged landscape. Snow leopards are among the most distinctive wild cats. Stocky, covered in thick grey fur with large black rosettes; they have small, rounded ears - an adaptation to minimize heat loss, and a tail, almost the length of their body, helps them balance as they scale impossible precipices. The snow leopard cannot roar, and with its camouflaged pelt and silent nature, these majestic creatures are known to locals as mountain ghosts -- elusive, rarely seen phantoms who leave frozen tracks in the snow as the only signs that they were ever there at all.
Sadly, the long-term outlook for snow leopards, a flagship species of the mountain ranges of Asia, is uncertain at best. As few as 3,500-7000 snow leopards are thought to remain in an estimated two million square kilometers of potential habitat across the Himalayas, Karakorams, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Tien Shans, and Altai ranges. Though they are legally protected in twelve countries, the species remains Endangered (IUCN Red List). Snow leopards are believed to have been extirpated from as much as 15% of their historic range, and in some areas their numbers have declined by as much as 20% just in the past 2 decades. Habitat degradation, mostly through excessive livestock grazing, occurs on a vast scale in areas of snow leopard habitat.
Although relatively few humans live in snow leopard habitat, their use of the land is pervasive, resulting in human-wildlife conflict situations, even within protected areas. Snow leopards are also highly vulnerable to poaching, and the illegal trade in pelts and bones presents a serious threat. The rising frequency and number of poachers and traders intercepted on their way into China with snow leopard parts, indicates that demand for such products is increasing. Few, if any, protected areas are free of human influence, and even those large enough to encompass a snow leopard’s entire home range cannot provide full protection for these big cats.
Snow leopards are faced with three main human-caused threats:
- Habitat degradation: Although relatively few humans live in snow leopard habitat, their use of the land is pervasive. Snow leopard habitat has been vastly degraded due to extensive livestock grazing, which leaves little forage for wild sheep and goats such as ibex, argali, blue sheep and markhor – all important natural prey of snow leopards.
- Human-Wildlife Conflict: Herders often lose livestock to hungry snow leopards looking for easy prey, especially when stocks of the cat’s natural prey have declined. Even in protected areas, snow leopards are being killed by people in retaliation for preying on livestock.
- Poaching: Snow leopards are highly vulnerable to poaching and recent evidence suggests that the demand for snow leopard parts is increasing. The illegal trade in pelts and bones presents a serious threat to the species.
Panthera in Action
Accordingly, the snow leopard’s continued survival hinges upon an uneasy co-existence with subsistence pastoralists eking out a living in the same harsh environment. However, there is still a chance to pull this species back from its current decline. Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program, led by Dr. Tom McCarthy, employs a multi-pronged approach to advancing conservation of this species across its range. Utilizing rigorous scientific research while developing and disseminating improved methods of monitoring snow leopard and prey populations, Panthera contributes a wealth of ground-breaking scientific knowledge on this enigmatic and understudied species. Applying results from scientific investigation, Panthera drives national conservation policy in snow leopard countries, creating regional and country-specific action plans with local governments to impact snow leopard conservation at the highest possible levels. Working with partners at every level, Panthera’s snow leopard program addresses direct threats to snow leopard populations across their range resulting from the increasingly shrinking habitat and the rise in human-wildlife conflict. Panthera’s approach is based on three fundamental principles:
- Identify the geographic gaps and opportunities where Panthera can most effectively contribute to a range-wide approach in conserving the species.
- Undertake the basic science on the species’ ecology to be able to plan conservation on very large, ‘landscape’ scales, including addressing issues of habitat connectivity and fragmentation.
- Work with existing partners and implementers to coordinate joint efforts and increase effectiveness; and where there are gaps and needs, create new partnerships and projects.
Dr. Tom McCarthy processes a sample of snow leopard scat in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains. These samples are analyzed by our partners at the Global Felid Genetics Program, run through the American Museum of Natural History, and provide critical information about genetic relatedness between regional snow leopard populations.
Through partnerships, programs and grants, Panthera’s reach currently extends to nine countries, with active projects in five, and we expect to expand over the next few years to engage all 12 snow leopard range states. In 2008, Panthera began with establishing the basics, by refining maps of where the species occurs through solicitation of expert knowledge from around the range, We then moved ahead with developing and disseminating survey protocols to better monitor existing populations so that conservation efforts can be aimed at specific problem areas and their success documented. Our expert knowledge mapping process identified several potential corridors linking key snow leopard populations, hence, Panthera began to collect fecal samples from collaborators across the range to assess genetic relatedness of populations, and thus validate existence of specific corridors. To date, several hundred samples have been analyzed by our partners at the American Museum of Natural History through our Global Felid Genetics program, and the project has only begun. In addition, we aim to increase the effectiveness of certain existing programs and projects by forging partnerships in range countries at key sites, especially for certain tasks such as surveys and conflict mitigation. The final element in any geographic approach is to identify gaps where Panthera seeks to establish a foothold for initiatives.
Since inception of the Snow Leopard Program, Panthera has sought to expand upon key opportunities and establish conservation activities in several important snow leopard range states, including:
Read Panthera's Snow Leopard Report Card: The State of the Snow Leopard.
Click here to: Meet the Snow Leopard
Read Panthera’s Snow Leopard Brochure
Please click here to read Panthera’s statement in response to recent questions about collaring snow leopards.
snow leopard Programs
|Snow Leopard Program | Conserving Mountain Ghosts|