Did you know there are only 4,500-7,500 wild snow leopards left?
Confiscated snow leopard skin (photo: SLC/WWF-Russia/Arkhar)
Snow leopards suffer from 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 our impacts are pervasive. Livestock herding and poaching has led to ever-increasing human-wildlife conflict even within officially protected areas. The main conflict comes from snow leopards killing domestic livestock – in effect these people’s “cash-in-hand.”
Herder with a lamb killed by snow leopard in Ladakh (Photo: Brian Keating)
Complacent guarding, poorly constructed night-time pens, favorable stalking cover and insufficient wild prey all contribute to livestock loss. Loss rates of snow leopards vary widely from less than 1% to 3%, but the annual economic impact of livestock depredation may range from $50 to nearly $300 per household. This is significant given annual per capita cash incomes of $250-$400. Herders are especially angered by events of surplus killing when a snow leopard enters a corral and kills up to 50 or more sheep and goats in a single instance. Herders naturally want to retaliate by killing the offending cat. Those snow leopards living outside protected areas are all the more vulnerable. In some areas livestock comprises up to 50% of a snow leopard’s diet, highlighting both the importance of domestic animals to the cats, and the important role that local communities may play in sustaining the species. To offset this, alternative sources of income, such as tourism or sale of handicrafts, may greatly increase local people’s tolerance for co-existing with this predator.
Poaching and illegal trading in the snow leopard’s exquisite fur and highly valued body parts (used in traditional Asian medicine) is a significant and increasing threat. Trade centers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Mongolia all appear to be linked with the growing Chinese consumer market. In the 1990’s snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan declined three- or four-fold, with poachers taking up to 120 animals in a single year. The fur trade in Afghanistan re-emerged after the fall of the Taliban and the influx of international aid workers and soldiers – until conservationists launched an awareness campaign.
Illegal poacher’s snare (photo: S. Spitsyn)
Although officially protected in all of its range countries, the laws have been rarely enforced due to lack of awareness, insufficient political will to uphold regulations, or a shortage of funds and trained personnel. You can learn more about steps being taken to help combat poaching on the page about our program in Russia.
For more details on threats and associated conservation interventions, download the chart prepared by Rodney Jackson and others, Chapter 19 in: Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids. Table 19.1 from the same book summarizes the types of actions 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.