AboutZoos, Since 2008


The snow leop­ard may be a more com­mon big cat than we thought

pub­lished 09 July 2016 | mod­i­fied 09 July 2016

Snow leopard in MongoliaThe snow leop­ard has long been one of the least stud­ied – and there­fore poorly under­stood – of the large cats. No longer.

Sci­en­tists study­ing snow leop­ards now say the big cats may be more com­mon than pre­vi­ously thought. New esti­mates focused on areas described as ’Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­va­tion Units,’ cov­er­ing only 44 per­cent of the snow leopard’s exten­sive range (which extends over roughly 3 mil­lion km2) sug­gests that there may be between 4,678 and 8,745 snow leop­ards just in these units. This is higher than pre­vi­ous esti­mates for the entire global pop­u­la­tion, which had pre­vi­ously been thought to be only between 3,920 and 7,500.

The new cen­sus infor­ma­tion appears in Snow Leop­ards, a book pub­lished by Else­vier Press and edited by Dr. Tom McCarthy and Dr. David Mal­lon, world-​renowned snow leop­ard experts. The book is an aston­ish­ingly com­pre­hen­sive work on the biol­ogy, behav­iour and con­ser­va­tion sta­tus of these pre­vi­ously mys­te­ri­ous and enig­matic large car­ni­vores. The book brings together the most cur­rent sci­en­tific knowl­edge, doc­u­ments the most press­ing con­ser­va­tion issues, and shares suc­cess sto­ries in alle­vi­at­ing the broad threats that now jeop­ar­dize the long-​term sur­vival of this elu­sive species.

The snow leop­ard (Pan­thera uncia) lives across the great moun­tain ranges of Asia, occur­ring in the high­land regions of Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Bhutan, China, India, Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyz Repub­lic, Tajik­istan, Uzbek­istan, Mon­go­lia, Nepal, and Rus­sia. The snow leop­ard is per­fectly adapted for these high moun­tains with its pow­er­ful legs for jump­ing, thick fur for warmth, greyish-​white color pat­tern for cam­ou­flage, and long tail for balance.

How­ever, because of their remote and dif­fi­cult habi­tat, shy behav­iour, and cryp­tic col­oration, study­ing snow leop­ards has been extremely difficult.

Only in recent years have advances such as satel­lite teleme­try and com­pact cam­era traps capa­ble of tak­ing high-​quality night shots while sur­viv­ing extreme low tem­per­a­tures allowed sci­en­tists to begin to unravel the mys­ter­ies behind the snow leopard’s life,” said WCS sci­en­tist and vet­eri­nar­ian Dr. Stephane Ostrowski.

Said Peter Zahler, Coor­di­na­tor for the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Society’s Snow Leop­ard Pro­gram: “This is an incred­i­bly impor­tant book. It has col­lected vir­tu­ally all the most recent research and infor­ma­tion from all 12 range states, cov­er­ing biol­ogy, behav­iour, threats, and con­ser­va­tion activ­i­ties for this mys­te­ri­ous and elu­sive big cat and for the ‘moun­tain mon­archs’ – Asia’s wild moun­tain goats and sheep – that are their main prey. This book will serve as the go-​to ref­er­ence work on snow leop­ards for decades to come.”

Motion sens­ing cam­era pho­tographs of a snow leop­ard mum and her two cubs:

(Source: Snow Leop­ard Trust YouTube channel)

Despite the good news about snow leop­ard num­bers, the species still faces mul­ti­ple pres­sures
Said Richard Paley, Direc­tor of the WCS Afghanistan Pro­gram: “Snow leop­ards are still reg­u­larly poached for their beau­ti­ful fur. They are also killed in retal­i­a­tion for tak­ing herder’s live­stock. With the decline in their wild prey from over­hunt­ing, snow leop­ards may find them­selves forced to take more live­stock, which leads to a vicious cycle that snow leop­ards often lose.”

Said Dale Miquelle, WCS Big Cat expert: “We have lost over 90 per­cent of the world’s wild tigers in the last 100 years, and we have lost over 40 per­cent of African lions in the last 20 years. Big cats around the world are in dan­ger of extinc­tion. While it is great news to dis­cover that there are more snow leop­ards than we thought, there is also a good chance that this sit­u­a­tion might not last.”

The pro­tec­tion of snow leop­ards, their prey, and their unique high-​mountain land­scapes must con­tinue to be a pri­or­ity for the global com­mu­nity,” said Zahler. “Because of the low human den­sity in these moun­tains there is still exten­sive habi­tat for snow leop­ards. But with grow­ing pres­sures – hunt­ing, min­ing, roads, and even cli­mate change – our win­dow for ensur­ing long-​term pro­tec­tion of these big cats will close fast.”

There­fore the recent announce­ment of Mongolia’s Par­lia­ment that the Tost Moun­tains are declared a new pro­tected area for snow leop­ards in Mon­go­lia is good news and can lead to a fur­ther increase of the snow leop­ard pop­u­la­tion glob­ally. This is much needed, because cur­rently the snow leop­ard is clas­si­fied as Endagered by the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species™.

(Source: WCS press release, 05.07.2016; Snow Leop­ard Trust)

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Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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