According to the report, these numbers could be considerably higher since many illegal killings in remote mountain areas go undetected.
Five countries — China, India, Mongolia, Pakistan and Tajikistan — account for more than 90 percent of the estimated snow leopard poaching.
Skins, usually used as wall displays in homes and restaurants, are the most commonly seized snow leopard products, the report found.
Snow leopards may be hard to spot in the wild, but they make easy targets for poachers, according to a new report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Between 220 to 450 snow leopards have been killed illegally every year since 2008, the report found, mostly in retaliation for livestock depredation or for illegal trade. But these numbers could be considerably higher since many illegal killings in remote mountain areas go undetected, researchers say.
With fewer than 4,000 snow leopards estimated to remain in the wild, high levels of poaching could spell trouble for the already dwindling populations of these secretive cats.
“TRAFFIC’s analysis confirms the worrying scale of illegal killing of snow leopards,” said James Compton, Senior Program Director with TRAFFIC, in a statement.
Snow leopards are found in the remote mountains of 12 Asian countries. But five countries — China, India, Mongolia, Pakistan and Tajikistan — account for more than 90 percent of the estimated snow leopard poaching. Nepal, with its small population of snow leopards, also has relatively high poaching levels, the researchers found.
Most of the smuggled snow leopard products end up in China, Russia and Afghanistan.
Skins, usually used as wall displays in homes and restaurants, are the most commonly seized snow leopard products, the report found. In 2004 for example, 17 snow leopard skins originating in Mongolia were confiscated on the Russian border, while 27 skins were seized from a trader’s house in Linxia city, China. In Afghanistan, the skin trade is relatively open, the team observed, with skins being openly (and illegally) sold in markets.
While many snow leopards are killed for the illegal trade, they are also killed in retaliation for hunting livestock. These retaliatory killings in turn fuel the illegal trade, the researchers found. In more than half of the retaliatory and non-targeted poaching incidents reported in the study, people attempted to opportunistically sell snow leopard parts, contributing to some 108 to 219 snow leopards that are illegally traded each year.
To protect these endangered cats, the team calls on governments to address the leading cause of retaliatory killings, which is human-wildlife conflict.
“Even if there is reduced demand for snow leopard skins, the killing will continue unless we all work together to drastically reduce human-wildlife conflict and ensure that mountain communities can co-exist with snow leopards,” said Rishi Sharma, WWF Snow Leopard Programme leader and co-author of the report. “Compensation schemes and innovative predator-proof corrals are making a difference but we urgently need to expand these to benefit communities – and snow leopards – across Asia’s high mountains.”
The researchers also underscore the importance of developing DNA and photographic databases of snow leopards, as well as continually updating the snow leopard crime database, which includes reports on the poaching and trade of these animals across all 12 range countries. Additionally, the team urges governments to strengthen both their national as well as transboundary law enforcement to ensure that poachers are arrested and prosecuted.
This is the first estimate of snow leopard poaching across its range, according to the report. However, in the absence of other estimates, it is difficult to gauge the accuracy of these results or infer a trend, researchers say.