Why Monitor Snow Leopards?


How many Snow Leopards are left in the wild?
Where should the Snow Leopard Conservancy concentrate its resources and effort to best effect?

Finding answers to these two questions are fundamental to our success at conserving this endangered species. Although scientists believe that snow leopard tracks on top of the world some 3,000 to 7,500 snow leopards roam across their vast range in Central and South Asia, in truth this figure is merely a “best guess” that could be far off the target – unless we act quickly and embrace new tools for enumeration. Such numbers are based, rather tenuously, upon sparse and sporadic information extrapolated from a few limited places where biologists have made concerted efforts to count this elusive and superbly camouflaged carnivore. Their conclusions are based largely upon the distinctive sign that snow leopards leave in their environment, as well as from crude computer-generated habitat models. Clearly, if we are to ensure a future for this charismatic species, we need to know far more about its distribution and population trend in the twelve countries where snow leopards range. That requires monitoring their populations in representative areas and habitats to determine their current and future status. Are we dealing with the worst-case scenario of widespread, declining numbers, or are populations stable and even possibly increasing in some places?

Naturally, the Snow Leopard Conservancy’s goal calls us to help increase snow leopard and prey populations across the range. Toward this objective we apply a threats-based, scientific Running a sign transect in Shey-Phoksundo National Park, Nepal approach in order to identify the underlying root causes for any decline or disappearance of the cat from its historic range. Such baseline data is vital to helping scientists as well as donors evaluate the effectiveness of conservation actions and promote wise investment of both funds and human resources. Regular, consistent and scientifically valid monitoring is essential for establishing the extent of the species’ occupied range, or to detect changes in population size. The census tools employed must be accurate, reliable, cost effective and relatively easy to apply. Snow leopards are solitary, shy, and notoriously difficult to count, so it is hardly surprising that their current status and distribution remain so poorly known compared to other large cats. Surveys are logistically difficult to mount in the cat’s rugged and often politically sensitive mountain habitat, especially given the severe funding constraints most range countries are facing in protecting mountain biodioversity. And where surveys have been undertaken, the researchers have often failed to use a standardized or comparable method.

See the pages that follow for methods used to assess snow leopard and prey population distribution and status.