The snow leopard is no longer an endangered species, but its population in the wild is still at risk because of poaching and habitat loss, writes the New York Times quoting conservationists.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature said on Sept 14, 2017 that new data taken through 2016 prompted the reclassification of the snow leopard from the endangered list to the vulnerable category. The difference means, simply, that the animals have gone from “very high risk” to “high risk” of extinction in the wild.
Has the chilling threat of extinction worn off at last for the long-endangered snow leopard? Not exactly – but the iconic big cats’ conservation status has been improved from “endangered” to “vulnerable”, writes BBC.
The global population of the snow leopard has now estimated at 2,500 to 10,000 mature animals.
But the snow leopard could still face a population decline of 10 percent or more over the next three generations in its habitats, which are mostly mountainous areas of Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. It “still faces a high risk of extinction,” the conservation group said, from habitat loss and degradation, declines in prey populations and poaching for illegal wildlife trade, among other reasons, the experts say.
“It is essential to continue and expand conservation efforts to reverse its declining trend and prevent this iconic cat from moving even closer to extinction,” the group says. The conservationists, however, warned that the risks are not over for the snow leopards.
Emerging potential threats include mining and other infrastructure development that would affect their habitats, the NYT writes.
The snow leopards, elegant yet elusive creatures, were first listed as endangered by the IUCN in 1972. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of different species of plants and animals.
In its report on the snow leopard, it noted the population numbers could be partly speculative, given the difficulties in collecting hard data on the elusive and secretive species across all regions.
After the conservation group’s report was issued, the Snow Leopard Trust said the “vulnerable” classification still meant there was a high risk of extinction. It took issue with the lack of reliable techniques such as camera traps or genetic analysis, saying the assessment relied in part on “asking people how many snow leopards they think to exist in any area,” the trust said.
Tom McCarthy, an executive director of Panthera, a conservation group that focuses on the world’s wild cats, said that to be considered endangered there must be fewer than 2,500 mature snow leopards, with a high rate of decline.
Dr McCarthy, who was on the IUCN assessment team, said in a statement that the reclassification did not mean “that snow leopards are ‘safe’ or that now is a time to celebrate. The species still faces ‘a high risk of extinction in the wild’ and is likely still declining — just not at the rate previously thought.”
“Experts from each range countries were asked to come up with best estimates of snow leopard population by country and the total was between 7,400 and 8,000 animals,” says Dr McCarthy.
“You have to stress there that’s still what people call guesstimates, I like to call it a very educated guesstimate.”
The figures have been quoted by a recently published book on snow leopards that kicked off the debate. Before these latest figures, the widely quoted population for snow leopards since the 90s was between 3,500 and 7,500. “But I just can’t see why we would cling to the figure of the 90s,” said Dr McCarthy.
Experts have warned that the species still faces serious threats from poaching and habitat destruction.
The status change followed a three-year assessment process by five international experts.
The Snow Leopard Trust, which aims to protect the big cat through community projects, strongly opposes the status change. It plans to challenge the decision with the IUCN.
“We believe it could have serious consequences for the species,” it wrote in a blog post.
Scientists who believe that the number of snow leopards has gone up to say the information is based on people working in the field.
Snow leopard researchers believe the species’ decline may have been slowed by conservation projects – including some to protect farm animals from the predators, which are sometimes killed in revenge for livestock losses.
The number of protected areas within the snow leopards’ habitat has also increased significantly in recent decades.
According to a BBC investigation, scientists are divided on whether snow leopards are still endangered species. Some big cats experts say their population has stabilised and increased in a number of places, slowing the overall rate of decline.
Others, however, argue that there has been no robust scientific study to prove either that the population has stabilised.
Amid the disagreement, top government officials from 12 countries within the snow leopard range met in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, on Aug 24-25, and “expressed serious concerns at the ever-increasing risks for the snow leopard and its habitat. Environmental problems caused by degradation of habitats, climate change, poaching, and illegal trafficking are the key threats to the survival of the snow leopard and the conservation of its natural habitat.”
They stressed for reforming and modernizing wildlife laws, intensifying efforts for the protection of the endangered animals and their ecosystems … preserving snow leopard population and ensuring the cultural, social and economic well-being of mountain people.
The conservation of the snow leopard must be achieved by securing the involvement, livelihoods, and balanced development of human communities who share the habitat, striving to reconcile economic growth with environmental sustainability.
Conservationists say snow leopards have been threatened by poaching, retaliatory killing by farmers, declining prey species, shrinking habitats, and climate change.
“Although it is difficult to capture an overall trend, there is a general lack of evidence of a significant continuing decline in the global snow leopard population,” David P Mallon and Rodney Jackson, both veterans on snow leopards, wrote in the journal Oryx recently.
But some scientists are critical of that conclusion.
“[For that conclusion] less than 2% of the global snow leopard range has been sampled using scientifically acceptable techniques, such as camera-trapping and genetics,” says associate professor Guillaume Chapron, with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
“And that 2 % have been surveyed because there was an a priori expectation that this would be good snow leopard habitat.
“This is not a proper scientific reasoning. You do not choose a method based on the results it gives.”
Experts say habitat range for snow leopards extends over nearly two million square kilometres, involving 12 countries in central and northern Asia including the Himalayan ranges.
These are places with tough topography that helps snow leopards remain elusive.
This is why some scientists call them “cryptic wide-ranging species that are almost impossible to count – and therefore their population needs to be estimated”.
But they also admit that there is a danger of misrepresenting the true numbers through this type of estimation.
This, they say, became evident in recent scientific surveys based on camera trapping and genetic tests on faeces in Nepal and Pakistan, where fewer snow leopards were found than expected.
“This illustrated the dangers of this population size estimation technique of extrapolating from known surveyed areas (a very small part of snow leopard range) to the rest of suitable snow leopard habitat where they may or may not be present,” said a big cat species expert, who did not want to be named.
Professor Som Ale, a snow leopard expert who teaches at the University of Illinois in Chicago, commented: “Imagine the fate of a species such as the tiger or rhino or hawksbill turtle – a widespread victim of poaching and illegal trade — if the IUCN were to down-list species, across the world, based on population estimates largely based on interviews and expert opinions (from conferences).”
Experts knowledgeable about the IUCN categorization process, however, said the down-listing of the threat category for snow leopards is happening mainly because of a change in criteria.
The new provision requires either the adult snow leopard population to be below 2,500 or to have experienced a rate of decline exceeding 20% over 16 years for the species to be categorised as “endangered”.
Sources told the BBC that the IUCN assessment has found this is not the case.
Scientists have also differed on the first age of reproduction and sexual maturity age for snow leopards.
That difference led to a stalemate over re-assessing the IUCN Red List status of the top mountain predator since it was designated as “endangered” in 2008.
Those arguing for the continuity of endangered status say down-listing snow leopards to vulnerable category could dry funding and push the species to extinction.
“An immediate impact of down-listing snow leopard may be that the range country governments and conservation entities would de-emphasise (whatever little extent) conservation efforts they have on the ground to other perceived (lesser) conservation needs,” said Professor Ale.
Scientists in the other camp believe that a down-listing is a positive development and will motivate donor governments to continue funding – including for snow leopards – as they will see that conservation efforts do work.
Snow Leopard the magnificent cat
The magnificent snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is an integral part of the cultural history of Asia’s mountain people. An indicator of strength, stealth and liberty, the snow leopard is revered in all regions where It is found. Snow leopards’ habitat is the high mountains of Asia, which are considered to be the water towers of the world. Supplying water to up to 60% of the world’s human population, and providing numerous other ecosystem services that have high economic and cultural value, these mountains have regional and global relevance for the welfare of humankind.
The snow leopard is found in 12 countries that include Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Around 3,000 to 7,000 snow leopards survive in the nearly two million square km within these 12 countries and is provided with the highest level of protection by the local law as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) threatened with extinction.
Snow leopard stats
- The rarely-sighted cats live in the craggy peaks of central Asia – including the Himalayas, and Russia’s remote Altai mountains
- Their habitat covers more than 1.8 million sq km / 694,980 sq miles, across 12 countries
- Scientists say they are threatened by poaching for their fur, infrastructure development, and climate change
- Usually found at elevations of 3,000-4,500m (11,480-14,760ft)
- Solitary creatures, they usually hunt at dawn and dusk and are able to kill prey up to three times their own weight
- Mostly feed on wild animals, but will also prey on livestock
- Their spotted coats change with the seasons – from a thick, white fur to keep them warm and camouflaged in winter, to a fine yellow-grey coat in summer
- Retaliatory killings by farmers are not uncommon but are rarely reported.