Snow leopards live in the snowy mountain regions of Central Asia, and their 12-country range includes Afghanistan, Russia, India, China, Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, and Pakistan[sc:1]. Their habitat exists between 9,800 and 17,000 feet above sea level on these mountains, where the treeline ends and the snowline starts. Unfortunately, these beautiful cats are now endangered and need humanity’s help to recover.
Reasons why snow leopards have become endangered
- Climate Change: Because snow leopards live on snowy mountains, their habitat is undoubtedly threatened as average temperatures continue to rise[sc:1]. Warmer average temperatures are leading to decreased glacier size and the snowpack is melting earlier and more quickly each year.
As temperatures continue to warm, snow leopards need to move to higher and higher elevations to find suitable habitat along with their prey. As vegetation becomes more scarce at higher elevations, so do the leopard’s prey that depend upon that habitat.
- Poaching: Snow leopards have beautiful fur that is especially valued in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Their bones and body parts are also used in traditional Asian medicine and they are captured for the pet trade in Central Asia. Due to the poverty experienced by many in these areas, poaching by local residents serves as a source of income to meet basic family needs[sc:2].
- Retribution Killings: As the snow leopard’s natural prey has become more scarce, the snow leopards have resorted to killing livestock in order to survive[sc:2]. Farmers may feel that they have few options to prevent future attacks on their animals but to kill the snow leopards.
- Loss of prey and habitat: As keeping livestock represents an important livelihood to farmers in local communities, there is an incentive for them to increase their herd size[sc:2]. Keeping these larger herds has led to overgrazing in the habitat that they share with wild sheep and goats, and contributes to a decrease in prey numbers for snow leopards.
Humans also hunt the wild sheep and goats, which decreases snow leopard prey numbers even further[sc:2]. As humans continue to encroach upon snow leopard habitat for settlement and grazing, this is leading to increased fragmentation of snow leopard habitat.
- Mining: Chemicals and explosives are used to mine minerals in the mountainous snow leopard habitat. As the mining activities damage the local ecology, the snow leopards and their prey must find suitable habitat elsewhere[sc:2].
- Lack of resources: In the regions where snow leopard habitat exists, communities struggle with poverty and are unable to devote their own resources to environmental conservation[sc:2]. Government resources in these regions are also limited, making it difficult to enact environmental policy or enforcement.
What is being done to help snow leopards
Much of the work being done to help snow leopards involves conservation programs that are helping local communities and these endangered cats to co-exist[sc:3]. Conservation programs are building predator-proof corrals for livestock, creating and funding insurance programs for livestock, teaching farmers how to secure barns and livestock corrals against snow leopards, helping local communities to understand how they can minimize human-wildlife conflicts, educating local communities about the ecological importance of snow leopards, and halting the destructive mining activities in snow leopard habitat[sc:1].
Conservation organizations are also working on the establishment of protected habitat areas for snow leopards and the institution of mobile anti-poaching activities that monitor poaching activities and work to eliminate the illegal sale of snow leopard body parts and fur[sc:3].
Humanity must also tackle the issue of climate change and forge a sustainable path that does not contribute to the warming of snow leopard habitat and our planet.