Last week the environmental community was happy to report that the snow leopard – that feline predator of Asia’s high mountains – might have clawed its way out of the Endangered Species list up to the next level, Vulnerable. While the normally cautious conservation community was restrained in its elation, it did seem like good news for environmentalists and animal advocates.
It turns out the upgrade in status for the snow leopard may have been as much a statistical adjustment as biological progress, according to Sonoma’s Rodney Jackson, founder and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy. The classifications come from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the listings are included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which runs from “least concern” to “extinct,” with “endangered” right in the middle.
“In 2008, we used the same assessment of 4,000 adults in the wild as we did this year,” said Jackson. That year an estimated decline of 45 percent led to a population of 2,500 snow leopards in the wild, which placed it in the endangered category.
But this time, using the same population estimate of 4,000 adult snow leopards, the estimated percentage of decline based on field research and camera capture was projected at less than 20 percent, meaning the number of cats in the wild would be a more comfortable 3,200 or so, placing the snow leopard in the vulnerable category.
“Basically, the number of mature adults being above 2,500 and a reduced decline rate of less than 20 percent led to our recommendation that it be reclassified,” said Jackson. The recommendation was made jointly by Panthera, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Snow Leopard Conservancy and other international experts, those most intimately involved in snow leopard research and conservation.
But Jackson and the other scientists stopped short of celebration.
“I think it’s a good sign – it’s not a down-listing, it’s an upgrade in my mind because it means the cat is a little further from the threat of extinction.
“However, I would have to say that unless we keep up and indeed intensify our conservation efforts, it’s going to slip down very quickly and be at high risk. And that’s the last thing that we would want.”
Jackson’s own credentials in snow leopard research include the first-ever radio tracking survey of the charismatic feline predator, beginning in 1982. The smallest of the so-called “big cats,” snow leopards are generally between 60 and 120 pounds and between 3- and 5-feet long, with an unusually long tail and very elusive behavior.
The snow leopard is the apex predator in the world’s greatest mountain chains — the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan, Altai, and other mountain regions of Asia.
Unfortunately, even in these near-inaccessible mountains, the snow leopard faces numerous threats, including illegal trophy-hunting, diminished range, overgrazing and retaliatory killing by herders.
Because traditional livestock-herding communities fear the loss of animals due to predation, they may scare away or even kill snow leopards, in some cases on sight.
“The snow leopard is totally dependent on the good will of local people, whose livelihood is animal husbandry,” said Jackson.
He stressed that local initiatives such as community ranger monitoring efforts and the building of predator-proof corrals to control livestock losses are helping protect the cats from retaliatory killing by farmers and herders in many locations.
SNOW LEOPARD CUBS IN LA
Visitors to the Los Angeles Zoo got their first look last week at two endangered snow leopard cubs born there in May.
The brother and sister cubs were born to 3-year-old mother Georgina and 5-year-old father Fred. They are the first offspring for the adults, who were paired in 2015 as part of a species survival plan.
The cubs are finally strong and coordinated enough to navigate their outdoor habitat, LA Zoo animal keeper Stephanie Zielinski said.
Rodney Jackson estimates there are at least 60 zoos around the world that have snow leopards, though not all of them have Species Survival Plan-approved breeding programs.