Science

Number of snow leopards in the wild declines

By Kirby Evans

Hundreds of snow leopards are being killed by poachers every year across the high mountain ranges of Asia, according to a new report, which also highlights the rise in illegal trade of snow leopard skin and fur.

Snow leopards, not the largest of mammals measuring 4-5ft, and weighing in at 25 – 75kg, can live up to 20 years in captivity, despite being native to Central Asia; Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan and Russia. They can be found in forests above the tree line, living in caves in the rocky cliffs. Usually solitary.

However only 4,000 remain in the wild with around four a week being poached. Although mostly hunted for their skin, the leopard’s teeth, claws and bones are also being illegally traded online.

Ahead of poaching, their main threat is native locals: as whilst snow leopards do tend to avoid direct contact with people, they will happily eat their livestock.

Snow leopards can kill prey up to three times their own size, which makes cattle and sheep easy targets. Retaliation killing is causing a dramatic decrease in the numbers of snow leopards left in the wild. Local people are hunting the leopards in an attempt to protect their livestock and livelihood.

Thankfully, the conservation community are aware of this dramatic decline in snow leopards and have started taking action: WWF is helping people live in harmony with these enigmatic beauties. Recent developments mean that instead of hunting the leopards, locals are now paying into a community-managed fund, that works as an insurance policy. If a snow leopard kills insured livestock, the owner gets support from this communal pot of money. This, combined with education of how to securely keep livestock, is helping the community to tolerate snow leopards, and the changes are spreading from central Asia outwards.

Kyrgyzstan government and conservationists have started to introduce wildlife sanctuaries, in place of hunting grounds, in order to preserve them. They have been caught on camera numerous times in Kyrgyzstan’s wildlife sanctuaries, suggesting that these conservation efforts are having a positive effect. And whilst this is only a small population, it is a leading example of how we can move forward to increase snow leopard numbers across the globe.

Further to this, WWF have equipped many snow leopards with GPS technology in the form of a collar, which allows them to keep track of the cat’s movements. This information is helping to build up a catalogue of information on snow leopards, which until now have remained somewhat elusive.

Knowledge about them, enables us to enhance their chances of survival in the wild, and improve their conditions in captivity. Corporations such as WWF may be able to research snow leopards, and teach communities about sustainability, but they are very limited in terms of preventing poaching.

For more information and to find out how you can help, head over to WWF’s website and search ‘Snow Leopard’.

Photo credit: Charles Barilleaux

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