The snow leopard, which has been listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered since 1986, recently had its threat status downgraded to Vulnerable.
“However, its population continues to decline and it still faces a high risk of extinction through habitat loss and degradation, declines in prey, competition with livestock, persecution, and poaching for illegal wildlife trade,” the IUCN reported.
Many scientists and conservationists were quick to underscore the point made by the IUCN about the need for continued conservation efforts to reverse the snow leopards’ ongoing decline and ensure the survival of the species, regardless of its status on the Red List. Indeed, some experts argue that moving the species from Endangered to Vulnerable was not even justifiable based on the available evidence.
The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species had bad news about the conservation status of many species, including some that were previously so abundant that their entry onto the list as endangered or even critically endangered came as something of a surprise.
There was at least one species for whom the update bore welcome news, however: the snow leopard, which has been listed as Endangered since 1986 but has now had its threat status downgraded to Vulnerable.
“Thanks to new available data, the Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) has moved from the Endangered to Vulnerable category,” the IUCN reported before warning that “its population continues to decline and it still faces a high risk of extinction through habitat loss and degradation, declines in prey, competition with livestock, persecution, and poaching for illegal wildlife trade.”
Many scientists and conservationists were quick to underscore the point made by the IUCN about the need for continued conservation efforts to reverse the snow leopards’ ongoing decline and ensure the survival of the species, regardless of its status on the Red List. Indeed, some experts argue that moving the species from Endangered to Vulnerable might not have been warranted at all.
The IUCN itself noted that there have been a number of successes in the fight to save snow leopards, while acknowledging that there is a lot of work left to be done: “Thanks to significant investments in conservation for this species, including anti-poaching efforts, initiatives to reduce conflict with livestock, and awareness-raising programmes, conditions in parts of the Snow Leopard’s range have improved. It is essential to continue and expand conservation efforts to reverse its declining trend and prevent this iconic cat from moving even closer to extinction.”
Peter Zahler, coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Snow Leopard Program and one of the researchers who assessed the species’ threat status for the latest IUCN Red List update, said that the change was “based largely in accurate application of Red List methodology, which is a rigorous and step-by-step scientific process, and not on any new estimate of population.”
No one is really sure exactly how many snow leopards there are in the wild. In large part, that’s due to how difficult they are to study. The big cat’s range encompasses more than 1.6 million square kilometers (or more than 600,000 square miles) across 12 Central and South Asian countries, and its habitat includes some of the highest and coldest mountain ranges in the world, which are inaccessible at worst and inhospitable at best to human researchers. In fact, snow leopards are so elusive and their terrain so unapproachable that they were the last of the big cat species to be subjected to a sub-species assessment — which found that there may actually be three distinct sub-speces of snow leopards.
Zahler said that the lowest estimate of the snow leopard population, about 4,000 individuals, was used for the latest Red List assessment. “[W]hile there remains debate on the exact numbers of wild snow leopards, no reasonable estimates put them below 4,000 animals, so any debate over population size is not relevant to the outcome of this assessment,” he told Mongabay.
Most of the population data that informed the assessment may have been historical, according to Zahler, but there has been a considerable amount of new information gathered on snow leopards since the last assessment, published in 2008, which also factored into the assessment. “The combination of a significant growth and expansion of research and monitoring by multiple organizations on snow leopards (much more work, over a much larger area), coupled with a significant improvement of the methods used to study them (improved camera traps, GPS/satellite collars, improved statistical methods and better application of same for analysis) has provided us with much more information on the species,” he said.
Not all snow leopard researchers are convinced that the best available research justifies a status change to Vulnerable, however. Charudutt Mishra is the science and conservation director for Seattle, Washington-based NGO the Snow Leopard Trust as well as the executive director of the Snow Leopard Network, a global organization of snow leopard experts. He told Mongabay that the only thing we can really say for certain about snow leopards “is that we know very little.”
More than 98 percent of the snow leopard’s global habitat has never been sampled for abundance using scientifically acceptable techniques, he said. “Even in the other 2%, the areas were not randomly selected and information is obviously biased towards better sites.”
What’s more, he added, “For many key parameters of snow leopard biology which could help with a reliable Red List assessment” for wild snow leopards, like age at first reproduction, population growth rates, birth and mortality rates, sex ratios, and litter size, “no information is available at all. In fact, the data we do have are so limited and involve so many assumptions that it is not hard to make a case for whichever scenario you choose to support, endangered or vulnerable.”
Mishra points to Pakistan, where a large proportion of snow leopard habitat was recently sampled using camera traps and genetics. “Results show that the snow leopard population there could be as low as 40 cats, and almost certainly lower than 100, compared to the earlier belief that the country has 200-420 cats,” he said. “This varying data suggests that snow leopard populations in some parts of their habitat may be lower than assumed or declining faster than believed, and that more robust science is needed to ensure an accurate assessment. Under these circumstances, I don’t see how one can justify such a decision, which can have potentially serious consequences for the species.”
Anticipating the criticism that only two percent of the snow leopard’s range has been significantly surveyed, Zahler said: “I don’t know that this is true or how it compares to other wide-ranging species, but regardless, 1) nobody complained about the previous assessment which clearly had much less data over much less area, and 2) if that argument were true, the status would have to be Data Deficient, not Endangered!”
One point every snow leopard researcher seems to agree on, however, is that the species’ survival is by no means guaranteed at this point, and that implementation of conservation measures must continue apace in order to prevent the snow leopard from going to extinct due to threats like poaching, habitat destruction, loss of prey species, roads, border fences, and climate change.
Dr. Tom McCarthy, Executive Director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program and a member of the assessment team along with Peter Zahler at WCS, said in a statement that “To be considered ‘Endangered,’ there must be less than 2,500 mature snow leopards and they must be experiencing a high rate of decline. Both are now considered extremely unlikely, which is the good news, but it does not mean that snow leopards are ‘safe’ or that now is a time to celebrate. The species still faces ‘a high risk of extinction in the wild’ and is likely still declining — just not at the rate previously thought.”
Zahler added that “It is important that a change in status is not misinterpreted — this change does not mean that the snow leopard has been ‘saved’ and efforts on its behalf can stop. The IUCN’s Vulnerable status means a species is still vulnerable to extinction, and the snow leopard population is still believed to be in decline and facing a high risk of extinction.”
- Janecka, J. E., Yu-guang, Z., Di-qiang, L., Munkhtsog, B., Bayaraa, M., Galsandorj, N., … & Zhi, L. (2017). Range-Wide Snow Leopard Phylogeography Supports Three Subspecies. Journal of Heredity. doi:10.1093/jhered/esx044
- McCarthy, T., Mallon, D., Jackson, R., Zahler, P. & McCarthy, K. 2017. Panthera uncia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22732A50664030. Downloaded on 26 September 2017.
Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001