For thousands of years, snow leopards have survived in some of the most rugged and harsh landscapes on Earth, but could a combination of human and climatic factors lead to their untimely downfall?
The snow leopard is an iconic creature which stalks some of the most remote and extreme places on Earth. These majestic creatures are found on the towering Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas (home to Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain) at altitudes up to 4500m high. To put that into perspective, the UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is just over 1300m high.
However, Snow Leopards are rated ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union of the Conservation of Nature). Poaching, conflict with agriculture and, increasingly, human induced climate change is reducing the number of snow leopards and is increasingly threatening their viability as a species. Only 7,000 cats remain, with populations separated across 12 different central Asian and Himalayan countries, with western China (mostly Tibet) containing 2,500 of those. Nevertheless, the remoteness of the leopard’s preferred habitat has meant that snow leopards are better off than other big cat species: think about tigers, which live in densely populated east and southeast Asia, which have lost around 95% of their range.
Although climate change is clearly affecting the Himalayas, the effects of climate change on Snow Leopard’s habitats is much less simple. According to one study, the size of the snow leopard’s range will actually increase by 45% north of the 35°N latitude, but will decrease by 18% south of this line. However, the total area doesn’t necessary reflect habitat quality, with many areas on the slope of the Himalayas becoming fragmented as temperatures rise and the leopards preferred habitat type shift to a higher altitude. Mountain habitats are especially badly affected by climate change due to the sharp temperature gradient as altitude increases. Creatures at a high altitude will eventually be unable to migrate upwards, as the area of the mountain decreases the higher you go.
Of course, snow leopards have had to endure periods of natural climate change. One recent study by the Snow Leopard Trust used paleoenvironmental data (proxy data going back 100,000 years) and found that the Snow Leopard’s range underwent contractions due to climatic fluctuations. Importantly, however, this study identified areas of ‘refugia’ where conditions remained stable enough for Snow Leopards to survive. This study voices optimism that these areas may remain viable under this extreme period of human-induced warming.
Unfortunately, climate change isn’t the only issue snow leopards have to face. Although the impact of climate change on animal populations will increase rapidly in the future, factors such as urban and agricultural expansion, along with overexploitation (the direct killing of animals via hunting, fishing, logging and habitat destruction) rank as the biggest factors affecting animal populations. For the Snow Leopards, it is no different. Shockingly, it was estimated that 220 to 450 cats per year were killed by humans between 2008 and 2016, which would be between 5 to 10% of the population killed every year.
However, these cats are so elusive that estimations of population sizes and poaching numbers are tricky to come by, which complicates conservation efforts. The species (such as, wild ovine species such as sheep and goats) that these leopard’s prey on are also threatened by unsustainable hunting. Many of the countries where the snow leopard lives are less developed nations which means local farmers and people sometimes resort to snow leopard poaching to make a living or defend their livelihoods. This, along with weaker environmental governance, makes the Snow Leopard vulnerable to overexploitation.
Because of this, conservation methods are often aimed at engagement with local communities in the Himalayan region. In Mongolia, WWF has been working with local goat herders to try and reduce retaliatory killings when Snow Leopards prey on livestock, and also have been supporting TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are much harder to combat without a comprehensive reduction in carbon emissions. However, if the more manageable human threats to the leopards are reduced, then the species is much more likely to survive any climatic changes that do occur.
In summary, the Snow Leopard’s future looks somewhat uncertain. Like many other species, anthropogenic climate change isn’t as large as a threat as human factors, such as overexploitation, but it may end up being the last straw if other pressures aren’t reduced. Ultimately, conservation must be about people as well as the animals. Schemes compensating farmers, and livestock management strategies have been shown to have high success rates at protecting snow leopards. Only through protecting local people’s livelihoods will conservation be successful, in the face of a rapidly changing climate.
About the Author: Tom Wainwright is currently studying for a MSc in Environmental Science and Management at the University of York having recently graduated with a First-Class BSc in Natural Sciences. He is interested in climate change and meteorology, biodiversity changes, environmental governance and geopolitics.