What does climate change mean for snow leopards and the rugged landscapes they inhabit?
Known as High Asia, the remote, high elevation regions of the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountain ranges, is experiencing rates of warming higher than most other places in the world. How climate change will impact High Asia—and its enigmatic and endangered snow leopards—is a significant conservation dilemma.
To better understand the potential influence of climate change on snow leopards, we considered both historic and future climate scenarios. To do this, we built a model of snow leopard habitat and projected it three different ways: back in time 21,000 years to the last ice age, back 6,000 years ago to the mid-Holocene period, and forward to the year 2070. Together, these projections encompass the warmest and coldest global climates that snow leopards have experienced in the past 100,000 years, including anticipated climate conditions of the near future. Our results showed considerable habitat expansion, contraction and fragmentation across snow leopard range through different climatic periods, but, importantly, we also identified three large climate refuges, or refugia, patches of habitat that remained stable during past climate change events and are expected to remain good snow leopard habitat through future climate change . These three climate refugia include the regions around the Altai, Qilian and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram mountain ranges, a combined 35% of current snow leopard range. The persistence of these refugia across such contrasting global climatic periods is largely due to the unique mountain environment in High Asia, which maintains a relatively constant arid or semi-arid climate.
Though this result bodes well for the future of snow leopards, the pattern of change outside of these refugia—or about 65% of snow leopard range—is concerning. For example, we found that snow leopard habitat in Himalayan and Hengduan mountains is particularly susceptible to climate change. Depending on the scenario of climate change used in the model, by the year 2070 Nepal and Bhutan could lose between 28-82% and 39-85% of their snow leopard habitat, respectively.
The results of our study demonstrate some optimism… but only if we can ensure the protection of snow leopard climate refugia from increasing human activities. It’s also important to note that substantial conservation challenges will emerge as vast areas of snow leopard habitat is lost and becomes increasingly fragmented as a result of climate change. Getting ahead of and addressing these challenges now is imperative for snow leopards, their landscapes, and all the unique wildlife those landscapes support.