Threats to Wild Snow Leopards
Snow leopards suffer from similar conservation challenges as other large cats like tigers or jaguars, namely low natural density, large home ranges, dependence upon prey whose numbers are low or declining, and high vulnerability to poaching and other threats from humans.
Human density in snow leopard habitat is among the lowest in the world, but their activities and resulting impact are pervasive. Intensified livestock herding and poaching has led to ever-increasing human-wildlife conflict, even within protected national parks. And with a mere handful of protected areas free of such influence, the cat’s survival hinges upon an uneasy co-existence with subsistence pastoralists and farmers eking out a living in the same harsh mountain environment. The main conflict comes from snow leopards killing domestic livestock – in effect these people’s “cash-in-hand.”
Loss rates vary widely from less than 1% in parts of Mongolia or western China to over 12% of livestock holdings in some hotspots in Nepal or India, although losses typically average 1-3%. The annual economic loss associated with depredation events may range from about $50 to nearly $300 per household, a significant sum given the family’s per capita annual cash income of $250 – 400. Herders are especially angered by events of surplus killing when a snow leopard enters a corral and up to 50 or more of the confined sheep and goats are killed in a single instance. Such episodes often lead to retaliatory action against the cat. And with many snow leopards inhabiting areas outside of national parks or designated refuges, their vulnerability to human activity is further intensified.
Complacent guarding, poorly constructed night-time pens, favorable stalking cover and insufficient wild prey are the primary factors contributing to loss of livestock (which comprise up to 50% of the snow leopard diet in some areas, highlighting their importance along with the potential role that local communities may play in sustaining the species). However, increased access to alternative sources of income (e.g. from tourism or sale of handicrafts) may greatly increase local people’s tolerance for co-existing with this predator.
Poaching and trading in the snow leopard’s exquisite fur and highly valued bones or body parts (used in traditional Asian medicine) is a significant and mostly increasingly threat — fueled by the illegal international market which operate in many range countries. In the 1990’s snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during declined by 3-4 fold, with poachers taking up 120 animals in a single year. China, a rapidly emerging economic power, is blamed for the recent surge in poaching of snow leopards and other rare wildlife. The other primary trade centers for snow leopard pelts and body parts are Afghanistan, Pakistan and the border towns of Mongolia, all of which appear to be linked with the growing consumer market in China. The fur trade which thrived in Afghanistan during the 1970s re-emerged following the fall of the Taliban government and influx of international aid workers and soldiers – until conservationists launched an awareness campaign.
Although officially protected in all of its range countries, the law is rarely enforced due to lack of awareness, insufficient political will to uphold regulations, or a shortage of funds and trained personnel. Five countries (India, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and Russia) have developed National Snow Leopard Action Plans, but their implementation is limited.
For more details on threats and associated conservation interventions, download the chart prepared by Rodney Jackson and others recently published (Chapter 19) in: Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids (Editors D.W. Macdonald and A.J. Loveridge, 2010, Oxford University Press. [File Fig19.3-Conceptual threats-based snow leopard model]. Table 19.1 from the same book summarizes the kinds of actions that the Snow Leopard Conservancy and other organizations are taking to ensure that this beautiful cat will still be roaming the “Roof of the World” for your great, great grandchildren to marvel at. [File Table 19.1: Snow Leopard Conservation Interventions].