Known for their elusive nature, snow leopards are referred to by locals as “mountain ghosts.” As one of the most mysterious species on the planet, the snow leopard remains one of the least understood, and seen, of the big cats.
The State of the Snow Leopard
The snow leopard – known as the ‘ghost of the mountains’ – is one of the most enigmatic and least understood of the big cats. The snow leopard’s range spans 12 countries and two million km2 in Asia, with 65 percent of their habitat found in China alone.
The snow leopard is listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Today, scientists believe that between 4,500 and 10,000 adult snow leopards remain in the wild; their exact number is relatively unknown given they are extremely elusive and challenging to survey. The species is very rarely seen even by local people. However, new research, including camera trapping, is beginning to indicate there may be more snow leopards than previously thought.
"When the last snow leopard has stalked among the crags, a spark of life will have gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence."
- Dr. George Schaller, Vice President, Panthera
Human-Snow Leopard Conflict
Just 4,500-10,000 adult wild snow leopards are thought to remain, and human-snow leopard conflict is a leading threat contributing to the species’ decline. As snow leopard habitat is degraded by local livestock and their prey populations decrease, snow leopards increasingly prey on livestock. This fuels conflict in which snow leopards are killed in retaliation or because of their perceived threat to human livelihood.
Although relatively few humans live in snow leopard habitat, their use of the land is pervasive. Across the snow leopard’s range, habitats have 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 the snow leopard. Illegal and legal hunting of snow leopard prey is also contributing to their decline.
With decreased prey populations, snow leopards turn to livestock for food. Humans, whose entire livelihoods depend on their herds, will often kill snow leopards in retaliation for – or to prevent them from – preying on their livestock.
The capture and killing of snow leopards for the illegal wildlife market poses a significant threat to the species’ survival as well. Live snow leopards or their body parts can sell for thousands of US dollars, with their distinctive fur being highly coveted and their bones and other organs used in traditional Asian medicines.
Increase snow leopard and prey numbers, slow range loss, and find ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on the snow leopard’s habitat
Snow Leopard Program
Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program currently leads or supports conservation activities in five of the 12 snow leopard range countries. Using new and improved techniques for monitoring low-density populations in remote and rugged habitats, Panthera is collecting a wealth of data to better understand this enigmatic species and how best to protect it. Program activities include conducting snow leopard and prey population surveys, training national biologists in conservation techniques, assessing threats, securing their habitat, mitigating human-wildlife conflict by collaborating with local communities, and helping governments establish and implement National Snow Leopard Action Plans.
Shan Shui was lucky to partner with Panthera since day one. Panthera's commitment to community-based conservation backed by strong science is already making a difference across the vast Sanjiangyuan, the headwaters in the east of Tibetan Plateau and the key snow leopard habitats. Tibetan herders here are not just co-existing with the big cat, but actively protecting it.