Saving the world’s most mysterious big cat

Posted on May, 14 2024

© Muhammad Osama / WWF

By Sana Ahmed, Communications and Fundraising Coordinator, Living with Big Cats, WWF

The snow leopard has earned its reputation as the ghost of the mountains. They are rarely seen even by people who live alongside them. For those who have embarked on the quest to find these enigmatic felines, the journey is often futile for many reasons beyond their mysterious nature. Their habitats have always been inaccessible, providing a perfect camouflage to this shy animal. It is almost like they never wanted to be found. But you will find tales written about these journeys and stories of the trekkers who found of their presence and – in rare instances – a glimpse of the world’s most rarely seen big cat. 

WWF stories of species recovery

Snow leopards, probably more so than other big cats, are hard to study, and hence harder to save. With limited knowledge about the cat itself and the habitat it lives in, the conservation efforts take time to design and need readjustments as the new research unravels, adding to the difficulties of executing the interventions in the harsh terrain and weather. But protecting snow leopards is essential: not just to save a magnificent animal, but also to safeguard the ecosystem and people it supports.

Snow leopards, like any other wildlife, have a key role to play in nature – they are indicators of the health of these ecosystems and their healthy population means that the water source of over 300 million people living downstream is secured. This is the reason why WWF teams in range countries have spent decades to understand these big cats better, piloted interventions to see what works on the ground and developed long trusted relationships with communities who are our allies in snow leopard  conservation. 

Although a long and often treacherous journey, the interventions to save snow leopards have helped to slow their downward population trends in some areas and in some cases even turn these trends upwards. Below are some examples of these successes: 

Solving the mystery

Snow leopard conservation teams work in one of the world’s harvest terrain to learn more about the big cat.

Just 10 years ago, snow leopard research and conservation looked very different. After days of trekking through high mountains in Asia, conservation  teams collected data in various ways: scribbling notes to document  the signs of the big cat such as scats, installing camera traps on strategic locations, and speaking to the communities about  sightings. After a few months, the camera traps were to be removed and what followed was months long analysis of the data that involved manually going through thousands of pictures taken by the cameras. It could take another few months before research findings could be ascertained and published. 

The logistical difficulties of conducting these expeditions, as well as resources and time required to conduct them, are some of the reasons why less than 3% of the snow leopard habitat has been rigorously studied for population assessments and concrete population numbers are still not available. It was not until 2016 that Bhutan became the first of the 12 range countries to complete the nationwide snow leopard assessment to confirm 96 leopards across the country. 

But now, slowly and steadily snow leopard research is advancing and incorporating new technology into research has helped snow leopard scientists in the last few years. For example, new software helps analyze data from camera traps in minutes now, reducing the manual effort of shifting through thousands of pictures and isolating those of snow leopards. In some countries such as China, which is home to the largest snow leopard population, artificial intelligence is used with infrared cameras to identify species and individuals from data  collected during field monitoring patrols, reducing the data processing burden on rangers, improving the efficiency and quality of data analysis, and contributing to the population assessment and monitoring of snow leopard. 

In the past few years, snow leopard research has improved tremendously which is a big leap forward in snow leopard conservation. The governments of range countries and various conservation partners, such as WWF, have dedicated time and resources and are fully committed to better understand the snow leopard and the landscapes it lives in that are critical to people. After Bhutan, Mongolia and India have completed their nationwide population assessments and confirmed total numbers of snow leopards in their countries. Russia completed the assessment in 70% of the habitat. These assessments took years to complete and involved efforts from hundreds of scientists. Thanks to these efforts of many, we now know more about this shy animal living in the remote mountains and conservationists are better equipped to plan conservation strategies to save them. 

Following its initial assessment, Bhutan completed its second assessment which showed that the snow leopard population increased by 49% –  a testament that the conservation efforts employed since 2017 were successful. 

Partnering with those who know snow leopard the best – people living alongside it 


In a first for snow leopard range countries, WWF in India is partnering with nomad Changpa community to envision and design rangeland management plan

Throughout the snow leopard’s habitat, human wildlife conflict is one of the main threats to its survival as people and wildlife come into proximity due to lack of prey and habitat encroachment. Attacks on livestock are common and so are retaliatory killings. When people’s lives and livelihoods are threatened, snow leopards can be seen as  an enemy to be eliminated. 

But traditionally, people living alongside snow leopards share a strange bond with the animal. There are stories of elders prohibiting snow leopard killings, despite attacks on livestock, because they were seen as a sign of blessings to come. In other places such as Nepal, the snow leopard was considered a deity. In Buddhist culture, they are still considered sentient beings that should be protected. 

Although conflict with people is still common in snow leopard range countries, communities are central to any success achieved in snow leopard conservation. In most snow leopard countries, community members acting as citizen scientists are crucial in data collection. They are involved in community-led watch and ward systems which help report and reduce poaching and killing incidents. Some of the interviews with previous hunters show how communities fought them off to save snow leopards. There are heart wrenching stories of people saving snow leopard cubs or those who grew up with anger towards them now becoming their fiercest champions. 

In most cases working with communities is centred on building a deep understanding of  community needs. In India recently, WWF helped co-create a  rangeland management plan with the Changpa communities, building on the  Changpa’s vision for their rangelands and their traditional knowledge, combined with on-the-ground research. The result is a a plan which benefits both people and wildlife. 


Accepting the old and embracing the new 


Many of the tried and tested snow leopard conservation efforts have proved successful in small pockets and snow leopard populations have bounced back. Two decades ago, there were no snow leopards left in Kanchenjunga, Nepal and it took efforts of many community champions to bring them back. One of them is Ghana Gurung, WWF’s snow leopard champion, CEO of WWF Nepal and a member of a community that lives alongside snow leopards. Having experienced livestock loss himself, Ghana very well understood the sentiments of his people in face of economic losses. He, along with the WWF team, devised strategies which addressed the root causes of the anger and started insurance schemes that are still running successfully in Nepal and the rest of the snow leopard range. With economic compensations, the community had no reason to persecute leopards and the big cat slowly returned to Kanchenjunga. The WWF team also set up camera traps and worked with the community to increase awareness about snow leopard conservation. Once they were confirmed to be back in the area, WWF also collared snow leopards with satellite tags which proved instrumental in increasing their numbers in Kanchenjunga. 

Satellite telemetry has been used for the past two decades to gather more information about snow leopards such as their behavior,  and habitat range. These details help identify areas of conservation focus and have proven to be integral in developing long term conservation plans.

But with time, WWF teams are also developing new thinking in meeting evolving conservation challenges. Recently, the team in Pakistan, along with a local university, has designed and piloted a camera trap that uses artificial intelligence to detect presence of wildlife including snow leopards in the area and sends a warning to locals. The community then remains vigilant and protects their livestock so that the predation incidents can be avoided. As more pictorial data is collected, the AI is becoming increasingly sophisticated in learning to differentiate between various wildlife species and the algorithm is being adjusted to identify big cats. Since its deployment a year ago, no livestock attacks have been recorded, despite snow leopards frequenting a stream close to the village.

The snow leopard conservation journey is long and difficult, sometimes life threatening to those who dedicate their lives to protecting them. But it is a journey with incredible value and importance  for these majestic creatures, their landscapes and the people who depend on them. 

On 15th May, Ghana Gurung, WWF’s snow leopard champion, will celebrate the snow leopard during  the first ever World Species Congress, run by the Reverse the Red Initiative, a virtual 24-hour event, intended to amplify our collective efforts to accelerate impact for species. As we mark this day, we hope that the dedicated efforts to recover the snow leopards will serve as an inspiration for the conservation of other endangered species across the world.