Snow leopard debate indicates the real need for more research on this elusive cat. But all agree that snow leopards are threatened, and face a high risk of extinction in the wild. | WWF

Snow leopard debate indicates the real need for more research on this elusive cat. But all agree that snow leopards are threatened, and face a high risk of extinction in the wild.

Posted on 14 September 2017
Rescue snow leopard
© Mohammad Osama / WWF-Pakistan
Recent debates have abounded around the snow leopard, with IUCN announcing that based on a reassessment of the species, it will be listed as ‘vulnerable’ rather than ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with some  scientists believing the data better supports an ‘endangered’ listing.  This debate is no surprise given that much of the  snow leopard’s range has yet to be surveyed,  and reiterates the urgent need for increased snow leopard population assessments in these remote mountain habitats. 

“There must be no mistaking the severity of the situation for the snow leopard in the wild. Unlike other conservation success stories, this change from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ is due to a reassessment and not yet attributed to an increase in population numbers. The IUCN Red List’s threatened categories are sadly reserved for species that at best, are facing a high risk of extinction,” said Margaret Kinnaird, WWF’s Wildlife Practice Leader.

However the most important point is that all scientists agree that snow leopards are threatened, and that they face, at minimum, a ‘high risk of extinction in the wild’.  No one doubts the enormous threats facing snow leopards – from increasing human wildlife conflict, poaching, and massive infrastructure development and habitat encroachment, to climate change that has already begun to profoundly affect their range.

Kinnaird continues, “The snow leopard will face increasing threats in the coming years, which will further jeopardise its survival. We remain committed to working towards a future which sees snow leopards thriving alongside healthy habitats and flourishing communities.”

The snow leopard is a key part of a unique and intricate cycle of life across the remote grasslands and snowy ridgelines that stretch from southern Siberia in the North to the Himalayas in the South. These high altitude regions are not only home to a unique assemblage of other wildlife, supporting the livelihoods of local communities but also store more snow and ice than anywhere on the planet other than the poles. This “third pole” is the headwaters for Asia’s largest rivers that support billions of people downstream.

By recent estimates, as much as 70% of snow leopard habitat could be lost due to climate change by 2070. Communities across high Asia have already begun to face these changes, as more frequent and intense extreme weather, unreliable precipitation, and rapid warming have devastated their livelihoods, destroying crops, livestock, and forcing migration to urban areas. Continuing change as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise will only place even greater pressure on these communities, ecosystems, and the snow leopard.

WWF is also urging governments to ramp up efforts in tackling levels of poaching and human / snow leopard conflict.  A recent TRAFFIC report estimates up to 450 snow leopards are poached every year – part of the same illegal trade which is decimating elephants, rhinos and tigers across Asia and Africa.

Increased conflict between people and snow leopards is due to loss of wild prey and shrinking habitats caused by overstocking of rangelands and worsened by the warming temperatures. Lack of wild prey forces snow leopards to kill livestock and mountain communities often retaliate by killing and poisoning them.

Whether snow leopards are vulnerable or endangered, there is no debate about the urgency to address the threats to their survival, and develop sustainable pathways that benefit rural communities and support biodiversity conservation.  WWF is committed to working towards this aim, in collaboration with other excellent organizations working on snow leopards and their habitats.
Rescue snow leopard
© Mohammad Osama / WWF-Pakistan Enlarge

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