October 23 is International Snow Leopard Day. It was announced in 2013 at a forum to protect these rare cats. The 12 countries where these animals live have agreed to join efforts to preserve snow leopards.
The snow leopard, also known as the ounce, is a felid in the genus Panthera native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because the global population is estimated to number fewer than 10,000 mature individuals and is expected to decline about 10% by 2040.
It is threatened by poaching and habitat destruction following infrastructural developments. It inhabits alpine and subalpine zones at elevations from 3,000 to 4,500 m, ranging from eastern Afghanistan, the Himalayas, and the Tibetan Plateau to southern Siberia, Mongolia and western China.
The primary threat to snow leopard populations is poaching and the illegal trade of skins and body parts. Between 1999 and 2002, three live snow leopard cubs and 16 skins were confiscated, 330 traps were destroyed, and 110 poachers were arrested in Kyrgyzstan. Undercover operations in the country revealed an illegal trade network with links to Russia and China via Kazakhstan. The primary skin trade center in the region is the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang.
In Tibet and Mongolia, skins are used for traditional dresses and meat in traditional Tibetan medicine to cure kidney problems; bones are used in traditional Chinese and Mongolian medicine for treating rheumatism, injuries, and pain of human bones and tendons.
Greenhouse gas emissions will likely cause a shift of the treeline in the Himalayas and a shrinking of the alpine zone, which may reduce snow leopard habitat by 30%.
Where snow leopards prey on domestic livestock, they are subject to conflict with humans. The loss of natural prey due to overgrazing by livestock, poaching, and livestock defense are the major drivers for the decreasing snow leopard population.
The snow leopard is listed in CITES Appendix I. It has been listed as threatened with extinction in Schedule I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals since 1985. Hunting snow leopards has been prohibited in Kyrgyzstan since the 1950s. In India, the snow leopard is granted the highest level of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and hunting is sentenced with imprisonment of 3-7 years. In Nepal, it has been legally protected since 1973, with penalties of 5-15 years in prison and a fine for poaching and trading it. Since 1978, it has been listed in the Soviet Union’s Red Book and is still inscribed today in the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation as threatened with extinction. Hunting snow leopards is only permitted for the purposes of conservation and monitoring and to eliminate a threat to the life of humans and livestock. Smuggling of snow leopard body parts is punished with imprisonment and a fine. Hunting snow leopards has been prohibited in Afghanistan since 1986. In China, it has been protected by law since 1989; hunting and trading snow leopards or their body parts constitute a criminal offense punishable by the confiscation of property, a fine, and a sentence of at least ten years in prison. It has been protected in Bhutan since 1995.
Global Snow Leopard Forum
In 2013, government leaders and officials from all 12 countries encompassing the snow leopard’s range (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) came together at the Global Snow Leopard Forum (GSLF) initiated by the then-President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev, and the State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry under the government of Kyrgyzstan. The meeting was held in Bishkek. All countries agreed that the snow leopard and the high mountain habitat need transboundary support to ensure a viable future for snow leopard populations and safeguard their fragile environment. The event brought together many partners, including NGOs like the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. Also supporting the initiative were the Snow Leopard Network, the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Wild Fund for Nature, the United States Agency for International Development, and Global Environment Facility.
At the GSLF meeting, the 12 range countries signed the Bishkek Declaration.
International Snow Leopard Day
Cat lovers across the world are celebrating the first International Snow Leopard Day on October 23rd. There is a reason for hope with a range of countries and the conservation community more committed than ever to saving this endangered cat. At the same time, shrinking habitats and prey numbers and poaching continue to threaten the remaining snow leopards.
Committed to raising awareness for the plight of an iconic species, the twelve Asian countries that are home to the cat have declared October 23rd, 2014, to be International Snow Leopard Day.
The day marks the first anniversary of the adoption of the landmark Bishkek Declaration on the conservation of this elusive big cat, adopted on October 23rd, 2013, at the first Global Forum on the Conservation of the Snow Leopard in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
Made possible by the initiative of the Kyrgyz president, Mr. Almazbek Atambaev, and coordinated by the Global Tiger Initiative at the World Bank, the Forum resulted in an unprecedented agreement that could change the snow leopard’s fate, with the range country governments agreeing to the first Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan and committing to protecting at least 20 landscapes as secure snow leopard habitat by 2020.
Over the coming years, the range countries, international conservation organizations, and public and private funding institutions will work together to ensure that these landscapes can indeed be a safe haven for the endangered cat. To coordinate the efforts mapped out in the GSLEP, a working secretariat has been established in Bishkek.
Revised snow leopard survival strategy
Both intentional and ongoing snow leopard conservation efforts are getting an added boost on International Snow Leopard Day with the publication of the revised Snow Leopard Survival Strategy.
This document, edited jointly by the conservation organizations represented in the Snow Leopard Network, establishes a scientific baseline and identifies priorities and best practices in protecting the endangered cat.
Despite the progress that’s being made for the snow leopard, the cat remains endangered. There is no accurate, range-wide population count. The most recent estimate from the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program in 2013 estimated the number of snow leopards remaining in the wild at a dangerously low, 3920-6390.
The cat’s increasingly fragmented habitats continue to be under pressure from mining, large-scale development, and climate change. Populations of natural prey species are thought to be in decline as well. Poaching and retaliation killings by local herders who fear for their livestock are another major threat that remains very much acute.
Worldwide effort needed
The Snow Leopard Trust, based in Seattle, WA, is a world leader in the conservation of the endangered snow leopard, conducting pioneering research and partnering with communities and authorities in snow leopard habitat to protect the cat.
The elegant and well-camouflaged snow leopard is one of the world’s most elusive cats.
The snow leopard has a beautiful, spotted coat, thick enough to insulate them from the cold. Their broad, fur-covered feet distribute their weight over soft snow, like natural snowshoes.
Snow leopards are solitary creatures and skillful predators, able to kill prey up to three times their weight in challenging terrain. It’s been found that poaching and retaliatory killing (as a consequence of a snow leopard killing livestock) are sometimes linked, and the attitudes and support from local communities living in these remote mountain areas are critical to the success of snow leopard conservation.
“Snow leopards are graceful but tough, as they live in such harsh and remote environments, high in the mountains of the Himalayas and central Asia. Very little is known about them, but we know they are threatened by habitat deterioration, poaching, and conflict with people, with climate change adding additional pressure. I am fascinated by snow leopards and the amazing places they are found in – I’ve had the great privilege to visit one of these areas in Nepal, see a snow leopard, and meet our dedicated colleagues and inspiring communities working to monitor and protect the snow leopard.”
Why snow leopards are so important
Snow leopards are top predators in their environment, and their prey includes mountain sheep and goats. Without the snow leopard, the ecological balance would be disrupted. For example, herbivore populations would increase, resulting in changes to the vegetation and affecting other wildlife in these areas.
The same landscape also provides food and other important resources for the many people who live there – including medicine and wood for shelter, heat, and fuel. So by protecting the snow leopard, we’re benefitting the whole natural environment in these areas and the people who rely on it.
How October 23 came to be celebrated as International Snow Leopard Day
The snow leopard is the indicator of the health and sustainability of a mountain ecosystem that provides water to up to 60% of the world’s population.
A large part of conservation efforts is to raise awareness through education. So here are some facts about the elusive, stunning snow leopard.
Snow leopards are often found in the mountains of Central Asia and have adapted to a cold and dry climate.
Snow leopards are around 55-65 centimeters in height and 90-115 centimeters in length. They have extra-large paws that are like a natural pair of snowshoes to prevent the cat from sinking into the snow.
As one of the world’s most elusive cats, they are solitary travelers and are most active during dawn and dusk.
Despite being quite strong cats, they are incredibly gentle creatures that are not known to harm humans. Snow leopards cannot roar because of the physiology of their throat. They are often heard purring, hissing, or growling in a non-aggressive manner.
Communication between snow leopards is done by leaving markings by scraping the ground or spraying urine against rocks to mark their territory or locate mates.
These cats have strong limbs that can launch up to 30 feet in one leap.
A female snow leopard is usually pregnant for 93-110 days before giving birth to her cubs in June or July. The mother tends to raise her offspring alone, providing food and shelter for her cubs. The cubs follow their mothers for the first 18-22 months of their lives, learning how to hunt before becoming independent.
Snow leopards are important to their ecosystem because, as top predators, they maintain the ecological balance by preying on mountain sheep and goats, preventing increases in herbivore populations and changes to the vegetation.
Many people who live near snow leopard populations rely on resources provided by these landscapes, such as wood for shelter, heat, and fuel. Protecting snow leopards would, by extension, protect the local people too.
While not a lot is known about the snow leopard, one thing is clear – the species population is declining due to “habitat deterioration, poaching, conflict with people” and climate change, says Becci May, a Tigers and Asian Species Regional Manager for WWF. Through rebuilding communities in Nepal after the devastating earthquake in 2015, the WWF has been working with communities in the high mountains of the Kanchenjunga conservation area in Nepal to reduce conflicts between snow leopards and people. Snow leopards sometimes prey on livestock that leads to retaliatory killings. Snow leopards are often poached for their fur and bones for commercial and medicinal purposes and are also threatened by climate change-induced warming.
Celebrating International Snow Leopard Day should encourage us to learn more about this creature and the threats they face, prompting us to rethink the impact of our actions on these cats and the environment in which they live and rely on.
The snow leopard is under threat. Exact numbers are unknown, but there may be as few as 3,920 and probably no more than 6,390.
As the trade with snow leopard parts happens in the dark, data is hard to come by. Between 2008 and 2016 alone, one snow leopard was reportedly killed and traded every day – 220 to 450 cats per year. The true extent of the problem is thought to be even bigger.
Poaching also takes away the snow leopard’s resources.
Its main prey species – wild sheep and goat – are also threatened by illegal or unsustainable hunting in many parts of the snow leopard range. If their populations decline, so do the snow leopards.
Wild snow leopards and their prey species share their habitat with domestic livestock. As more and more domestic animals find their way into the snow leopard’s habitat, the cat occasionally preys on them and kills them.
For the herders, who are often economically disadvantaged, such losses are catastrophic.
To protect their herds and livelihoods, herders sometimes kill snow leopards in retribution. This may account for more than half of all snow leopard killings.
If that were not enough, the snow leopard also faces threats that could destroy the mountain ecosystem it relies on, such as mining and other large-scale development.
Climate change poses new challenges as well
Temperatures are on the rise across the mountains of Central Asia. The Tibetan plateau, home to more than half of the remaining snow leopards, has already gotten 3 degrees warmer in the last 20 years. The changes impact the entire ecosystem: vegetation, water supplies, animals – and they threaten to make up to a third of the snow leopard’s habitat unusable.
Thanks to thousands of supporters worldwide, the Snow Leopard Trust’s international research team is studying this endangered cat and its behaviors and needs in five key range countries. This helps us determine where to focus our conservation programs to address these threats and secure the snow leopard’s future! Will you help make this work possible?
Do you know that settling on the Earth, domestic cats were among the hundreds of the worst invasive species? Read more here!