Snow Leopard, scientifically known as Panthera uncia, is a wild cat inhabiting the cold and elevated rocky mountains of Central Asia. They are apex predators of their ecosystem, and the ones who keep the primary production high and the environment healthy. Do you know that this beautiful iconic cat of mountains is facing threats? Today, celebrated as the international snow leopard day, let’s learn about this animal’s taxonomy, geographic range, ecology, the population status, threats that they are facing, and the conservation efforts.
Snow Leopard was first identified by Buffon in 1761 and called “l’Once”; then, Schreber gave the first scientific name as “Felis uncia” (Kitchener et al., 2016). The snow leopard was also called “Uncia uncia” because of the physical appearance of the species and unique ecology. After the genetic analyses, the species’ scientific name changed to “Panthera uncia”. The taxonomic classification of the snow leopard can be seen from figure 1 below:
Figure 1. Classification of Snow Leopard
The genus of the species could not be decided at first since Snow Leopard is quite distinctive from other members of Panthera genusconcerning their habitats, geographic ranges, physiologies, physical appearances, and behaviours. Later, the genetic analyses provided data to link the Snow leopard to Panthera genus and showed that its closest relative in the evolutional history is Panthera tigris – the tiger.
Although this animal is accepted as monotypic and treated accordingly in all conservation programs, there has been a debate going on between research groups about the existence of three subspecies of Snow Leopard (Janecka et al., 2017; Senn et al., 2018; Janecka et al., 2018). The claim of subspeciation might be the result of habitat fragmentation of the Snow Leopard, which is a severe threat for the population. The subspeciation does not seem to be confirmed yet by other research groups or associations.
Geographic Range and Habitat
The geographic range of the Snow Leopard is limited by the Himalayan Mountains in the South, Gobi Desert in the East, Southern Siberia in the North, Uzbekistan and Hindukush Mountains in the West. It prefers high altitudes such as rocky and shrubby mountain peaks and inland cliffs which have a cold and dry climate, with an altitudinal variation between 500 m and 5800 m. This range includes lands of 12 countries which are: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (IUCN, 2016). This range is approximately 2.8 million km² (McCarthy et al., 2016).
Figure 2. The geographic range of Snow Leopard (Panthera, Wildlife Conservation Society, Snow Leopard Trust, Snow Leopard Network 2017. Panthera uncia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2020-2)
Panthera uncia is the smallest member of the Panthera genus with a weight between 30-60 kg (Kitchener et al., 2016). They have unique adaptations which enable them to live in the cold and rocky environment of Asian Mountains. These adaptations also give them distinctiveness from other Panthera members. In short, these adaptations are;
Wide-short nasal cavity to warm the cold air and strong lungs to get oxygen from the thin mountain air
Longer & thicker fur for temperature regulation with a pattern that enables them to blend and get elusive in terrain
Short ears and smaller body size to prevent heat loss
Oversized paws to walk on the snow easily
Shorter front legs to jump better and move smoothly in the rocky mountain cliffs,
A long tail for balance on rocks as well as insulation (Snow Leopard Trust, nd.)
Figure 3. Main physical characteristics of Snow Leopard to adapt its Habitat (Snow Leopard Conservancy, nd.)
Like other Felids, Panthera uncia is also a carnivore, and its main prey preferences are Blue Sheep, Asiatic Ibex, Argali, domestic stock, marmots, pikas, hares, small rodents and game birds (Khatoon et al., 2017). The percentages of prey preferences change with respect to season and abundance due to factors such as hunting of prey species by people or the availability of livestock pens.
Snow leopard individuals are solitary except during their mating seasons. The pair stays together for a few days between January and March, and the pregnancy period lasts between 95-110 days. Male snow leopards are not involved in raising the cubs, providing food or shelter (Snow Leopard Trust, nd.).
Population and IUCN Red List Status
Figure 4. IUCNRed List Status of Panthera uncia (IUCN, 2016)
The Conservation Monitoring Centre of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had listed the snow leopard as endangered since 1986. In 2016, this status was changed to vulnerable (Figure 4) by IUCN according to the population data showing that there were around 7.500 individuals in 2016 (Table 1). IUCN guideline suggests that an organism might be endangered (EN) if only there are less than 2500 mature individuals (MI) observed (IUCN, 2015). Since they estimated mature individuals more than 2500, the Union decided to downlist the status of Panthera uncia.
Table 1. Population estimates in the countries where the Snow Leopard inhabits (McCarthy and Mallon, 2016)
It is always crucial to correct the complex data for the sake of science and a successful conservation process; however, this downlisting procedure might give a wrong reflection to the public as Snow Leopard population is under-recovery and it does not need conservation efforts. The IUCN’s downlisting decision also drew the attention of some conservation organisations such as Snow Leopard Trust. They and some other scientists objected the IUCN’s downlisting decision and claimed the data is not clear enough to support downlisting to status (Snow Leopard Trust, 2017; 2018).
Regardless of what is the result of this conflict, the decrease in population size is the truth. According to WWF, the current population size of the Snow Leopard is approximately 4000 individuals in the wild (WWF, 2020). Numerous studies also forecast that population will go into more significant trouble (Chapron & Legendre, 2002) (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Future predictions for the population growth of Snow Leopard (Panthera- Snow Leopard, nd.)
Considering the data trends from 1986 to 2020, it can be said that it will be inevitable that the Red List status will change back to endangered in a few years if the conservation actions remain incapable. Detecting the threats and making the conservation actions effective enough will be the primary concern at this stage.
Snow leopards crucially need a wide geographic range and availability of food to continue their life. However, there are more threats they are facing than we think. The main threats that put their life at risk are poaching, habitat loss, policy, climate change, and prey abundance.
Since it is a rare and attractive animal, people that go hunting as a hobby frequently prefer the Snow Leopard. Since killing a Snow Leopard is forbidden, investigating its poaching is even harder. According to the research between 2008 and 2016, one individual has been killed and traded per day, which makes the loss of 220-450 individuals annually (Snow Leopard Trust, nd.). Moreover, the trade of Snow Leopard is highly popular because of its elegant fur and some organ parts which are used in traditional Asian Medicine.
Since the home range of this big cat is vast to maintain their basic life needs, habitat loss has been an inescapable problem. According to a study conducted in 2019, proximately 70% geographic range contraction has taken place since 1837, which means there is not an individual living in these areas, parks and reserves anymore (Mahmood, Tariq et al.,2019).
Figure 6.GIS-based change of distribution map of snow leopard
(Mahmood, Tariq et al., 2019).
The article suggests that the main reason for the habitat loss is human activities contributing towards the alteration of habitat and exploitation for several purposes. The crucial reasons for habitat loss can be expanded as Mining & Land Development as well as Climate Change (David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, nd.).
Human-Wildlife conflict is a big problem for this cat, just like most of the threatened species. Although the human population in Snow Leopard’s habitat is not dense, the same habitat is widely used for livestock (Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program, nd.) which creates a food competition between native herbivores and livestock and decreases primary productivity. When food resources decrease, the abundance of wild prey also decreases. Moreover, hunting of these wild herbivores by humans makes it harder to find food for Snow Leopards. With the pressure of these factors, Snow Leopards are more prone to choose livestock of local people for food. Besides the difficulty in finding food, they are sometimes the victim of retaliatory killings by locals who lose their economic means of living (Valentová, 2017).
There is a lack of international cooperation and policy between the 12 countries under which Snow Leopards’ home range falls. For this reason, it is hard to establish a trans-boundary conservation effort by setting up a shared policy, executing and judging with the same way (Valentová, 2017). To illustrate the severity of the problem; hunting and international trade are prohibited everywhere except Tajikistan (CITES, 1975). This kind of policy gap obstructs the conduct of conservation studies successfully.
Conservation efforts started in 1975 with the prohibition of hunting and international trade in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Although the poaching and dark market continues, the legislation is deterrent and gives the right to punish the offenders.
So far, there are 109 protected areas in the range of Snow Leopard which constitute 276,123 km2 of the geographic range, which is still a small area for this wild cat. Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program set the goal of taking 20 populations under security by 2020, which are in 20 different landscapes, the places mostly on the borders (GSLEP, nd.).
Mongolia, Pakistan, Nepal, Russia, and India have their national action plans; whilst other seven countries still lack behind at the national level.
In order to decrease the human-Snow Leopard conflicts, livestock insurance, vaccination, and building of predator-proof corrals are done. Through these measures, it is expected to decrease the financial loss of local people and retaliatory killings by them (Snow Leopard Trust, nd; WWF, nd.).
To fight against poaching, Snow Leopard Trust is working with the Kyrgyz Government to train the rangers (Figure 7). According to the seven different studies, these anti-poaching patrols seem to be effective (Conservation Evidence, nd.).
There are conservation education programs taking place in order to improve the public awareness with the lead of Snow Leopard Trust in India, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan (Snow Leopard trust, nd.).
Figure 7. Interpol agent training Kyrgyz wildlife rangers combat poaching more effectively. (Snow Leopard Trust, nd.)
Despite the serious threats, there are several associations, and governments are trying to work together to save this elusive cat. Even the actions taken are helpful, it will be essential to apply them to all over the geographic range. For instance, anti-poaching patrols and education programs were effective to start in Kyrgyzstan because of geographic importance, yet it will not be enough to prevent extinction. We can see that the biggest problem against conservation actions is an international policy and management issue, and it needs to be solved urgently.
Yazar/Writer: Yaren Özoğul
Editor: Fesiha Yavuz
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