Snow leopards are so rare that many of the researchers who have studied them for decades have never even seen one in the flesh.
These big cats may leave scat or even the occasional tuft of fur in a hair snare, but their passage is often ghostly — so much, in fact, that photographers are only just now capturing many aspects of their lives. In many areas, snow leopards still face conservation threats due to mining development, livestock herding and persecution from locals in their range.
The population growth prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to downlist the animals from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2017.
“They are extremely elusive, much more elusive and harder to see than most of the other big cats,” says Jan Janecka, a conservation geneticist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Despite their elusive nature, however, the charismatic snow leopard is rebounding in numbers in regions like the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau — a vast area covering parts of southwestern China and bordering countries. This is in part due to the work of local communities to improve education and tolerance.
Where Do Snow Leopards Live?
The IUCN estimates between 2,710 and 3,386 mature snow leopards exist in the wild. These are very thinly stretched across 12 countries, from southern Russia and Mongolia down to parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal and southern China.
According to work by Janecka and others, they are broadly divided into three major populations that can be considered subspecies: a northern population in parts of Russia, Mongolia, northern China and Kazakhstan; a central population in Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and northeastern India; and a southern group in around the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Even in areas where the population is considered relatively healthy, each solitary adult has a huge territory where they live and hunt. Some estimates put their range at as much as 193 square miles in Mongolia, though in Nepal individuals may have ranges of only a few square miles.
Are Snow Leopards Endangered?
The population growth prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to downlist the animals from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2017. But in many areas, snow leopards still face conservation threats due to mining development, livestock herding and persecution from locals in their range.
Snow leopards’ preference for extremely remote, mountainous areas has compounded the difficulty in tracking the health of their population. Are they doing badly? Or, are they just extremely hard to find, even at the best of times?
In the Chinese parts of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, at least, the latter seems true. While, historically, shepherds might have killed snow leopards to protect their livestock there, things have changed in the past decade or so.
“They have expanded in some places where they maybe weren’t as abundant,” Janecka says.
Part of the reason they are doing relatively well in this region may be due to recoveries prompted by stricter anti-poaching laws and enforcement in China, which hosts most of the world’s snow leopards.
“In China, laws are very strict, there are severe penalties for killing a snow leopard,” Janecka says. “They really do hammer down on poaching and killing of the cats.”
Snow Leopard Threats
Unfortunately, poaching is still an issue elsewhere. Wildlife traffickers are interested in parts of the snow leopards themselves, but the poaching of their prey also reduces the food available to the big cats, according to the Snow Leopard Trust.
They are also killed in many parts of their range due to retribution for killing livestock. The Snow Leopard Trust says that nearly half of those killed may fall in this category.
Finally, mining development, roads and other types of human infrastructure are encroaching into areas where snow leopards used to be relatively free from human influence. These roads — created to reach mines and other infrastructure — also help give poachers access to formerly remote areas.
Janecka has seen this happen in the Gobi Desert, where he often studies the montane predators.
Snow Leopard Conservation
Across their range, conservationists are working with new ideas to both protect snow leopards and reduce their conflict with wildlife. One of these techniques involves something like a police light: Wildlife managers use flashing foxlights to deter snow leopards from livestock areas.
In many cases, the livestock themselves may be helping snow leopards persist in some areas. Research by Janecka and others has found that livestock comprised 31 percent of snow leopard diet in Pakistan and 15 percent in Mongolia.
“Herdsman are almost providing an economic service with their livestock in way,” Janecka says. So, it makes sense to compensate them when the cats prey on their animals.
How Can We Help Snow Leopards?
But livestock shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a solution. While snow leopards may prey on these substitutes, the livestock encroach on the range of their native prey species like blue sheep and ibex, pushing them out of some areas.
“Protection and management of regionally specific wild prey is crucial for sustaining snow leopard populations,” Janecka and his coauthors wrote in the diet paper, “although overall dietary breadth suggests that snow leopards may exploit other species if necessary, including livestock.”
According to Janecka, working with local stakeholders will be tantamount to conservation success in all parts of their range moving forward.
“One of the most important issues, currently,” he says, “is to try to work with these communities to reduce livestock foraging.”