Since 1998 the enigmatic snow leopards have been classified as Endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List for threatened species. The effective population of snow leopards is about 4000 individuals with it declining at an alarming rate due to various anthropogenic reasons.
Snow leopards have also been included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, which prevents all commercial trade in species and it’s part.
Snow leopards are masters of camouflage. Their whitish-grey (tinged with yellow) in color patterned with dark grey rosettes and spots help them blend in with the mountain environment of bare rocks and snow. They have an enlarged nasal cavity, short limbs, well-developed chest muscles(for climbing), long hair with dense wooly underfur, and a long tail to help them adapt to the high altitude environment. The snow leopards lack a thickening pad of fibro-elastic tissue in their vocal cord due to which they lack the characteristic low and intense roars which can be made by other big cats.
Snow leopards are solitary cats. However, there have been observations of up to 6 individuals living in a group which presumably consists of a male, a female, and the cubs. They prefer the subalpine ecological zone with broken rocky terrain with vegetation that mainly consists of shrubs and grasses. They are generally found at an altitude of 3000 to 4500m. However, they are found in much lower altitudes within their northern range. They seem to migrate down to lower altitudes as their prey, ibex, and markhor, migrate down during the winters. They are opportunistic predators that are capable of killing prey up to three times their body weight. Their diet mostly consists of wild sheep and goats.
When we take a closer look at the historical range of the snow leopard, they are restricted to the mountains of central Asia with core areas in the Atlay, Tien Shan, Kun Lun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalaya ranges. They are found in 12 countries, namely, China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Mongolia. China contains as much as 60 percent of the snow leopard’s potential habitat. Due to the secretive nature of this rare cat and the difficult terrain, surveying the big cat is extremely difficult and has been surveyed only on rare occasions. Their presence along the international borders also makes it difficult for their accurate survey.
In 1988, Chundawat et al estimated the potential habitat for snow leopards in India. It was found out to be 95000 square kilometers of which 72000 square kilometers are located within Ladakh. There are possibly 34 existing and proposed protected areas that could harbor these big cats. Even though snow leopards are nationally protected in most of their ranges except Afghanistan, there is a lack of proper legislation for their protection. For example, in Pakistan, the species is protected only at the state level and not at the federal level. Due to a lack of political will, awareness, and lack of resources given to the species conservation at the governmental level, there is non-existent or ineffective enforcement of the regulations and laws in place. The ill economic status of the state also ails the conservation efforts of the species. The presence of corruption also renders the rangers ineffective to curb the number of wildlife crimes. Thus due to poor pay, many people often prefer to trade wildlife instead of protecting them for the economically skewed nature of the ordeal.
The snow leopard is protected under the National Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 as well as under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1978. It is listed as Schedule I of both the acts. However, the trade continued in Jammu and Kashmir until the end of the 1990s due to various loopholes. Various threats blanket the survival and the protection of the snow leopards. The high alpine tundra is a very fragile ecosystem. This makes the narrow habitat used by snow leopards extremely vulnerable to changes. The changes are subtle yet potentially destructive. The reduction of natural prey base due to illegal or unregulated hunting is also proving to be directly and indirectly a cause for the decline in the snow leopard population. Mountain ungulates are hunted for meat and trophies by residents. Moreover, wild games are often highly prized for their medicinal value or used as traditional food. Trophy hunting for sheep and goats is a lucrative business that is bringing substantial income to the government and both government and state hunting reserves. Even though this can be sustainable and provide economic incentives to local communities to protect wildlife and habitat, in some cases these hunts are not well managed and often leads to exhaustion. This, in turn, reduces the carrying capacity for snow leopards and other carnivores.
The natural prey base for snow leopards can also be affected by competition between livestock and wild ungulates. Other factors like fencing which disrupt natural animal movements and migration also affect the snow leopard population. This often impedes dispersal, breeding aggregation, etc. All these factors, on certain occasions, can result in conflict between man and wildlife which results in the killing of snow leopards in retribution for livestock depredation loss. Poaching of snow leopards for trade-in hides or bones is also a major concern. They are in demand for their pelts. A single pelt can bring a few hundred dollars (to the herder) to one thousand dollars in the black market. Above that lack of appropriate policy and lack of effective enforcement just provides a catalyst to the trade. Climate change just adds a cherry to all the other problems that are already prevalent.
Therefore all these issues need to be addressed to ensure the survival of these highly enigmatic species. With that, people need to be educated and aware of the importance of conservation of this species. This will ensure that proper management of livestock is done to ensure there is no livestock depredation by snow leopards. The poaching industry also needs to be strictly monitored and strict actions should be taken against any offender. At the same time, the incentives to the rangers and local community workers should be increased for them to be well equipped to tackle these issues. Trophy hunting should be controlled and wildlife-based ecotourism should prosper to ensure that the community has a constant source of income which will prevent the people from taking up poaching to earn a few hundred dollars
T. McCarthy, Snow Leopard Survival Strategy, 1st ed. Seattle: ISLT and SLN, Seattle, USA, 2003.
G. Schaller, R. Junrang and Q. Mingjiang, "Status of the snow Leopard Panthera uncia in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, China", Biological Conservation, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 179-194, 1988. Available: 10.1016/0006-3207(88)90138-3.
Chundawat, R.S., W.A. Rodgers and H.S. Panwar. 1988. Status report on snow leopard in India. Pages 113-120 in H. Freeman, editor. Proceedings of the Fifth International Snow Leopard Symposium. Inter- national Snow Leopard Trust and Wildlife Institute of India, Seattle, Washington.