The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is the top predator of Asia’s great mountain ranges, with a distribution covering perhaps as much as 3 million km2 of the continent. Yet only between 3,500 and 10,000 snow leopards remain, as they face threats ranging from the fur trade to retaliatory killing by livestock herders to loss of their prey – primarily wild mountain sheep and goats – from over-hunting.
The snow leopard is currently listed by IUCN as Endangered. Only a few hundred are believed to exist within Pakistan, and it was listed as Critically Endangered in Pakistan in the 2003 IUCN Pakistan Red List. The snow leopard is listed on Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which makes it illegal to transport snow leopard body parts across international boundaries. The species is also listed as Endangered by almost all range countries. Despite this, snow leopard populations are still thought to be dwindling across most of their range.
There are five major threats facing snow leopards in the wild.
- Poaching, especially for the skins but also for the traditional medicinal trade, is a growing threat across snow leopard range states.
- Loss of natural wild prey (mostly wild sheep and goats, but also marmots and smaller prey) is another major threat.
- This loss of wild prey leads to another threat, retaliatory killing by shepherds and villagers when snow leopards switch to livestock as the only available alternative food source. Even when snow leopards do not kill livestock, they are often blamed for losses and killed as a ‘precautionary’ measure.
- General disturbance and habitat loss is a growing threat as more and more people move into snow leopard habitat.
- Finally, lack of awareness is a threat – local communities are not aware of the endangered status of these big cats; local governments are not aware of the rapid disappearance of snow leopards and the need for improved enforcement both in and outside protected areas; and there is a surprising lack of scientific knowledge to inform management, including such basic facts as accurate population numbers and trends across the range states.
WCS has long been a global leader in snow leopard conservation, beginning with Dr. George Schaller’s wildlife surveys on snow leopards and their prey in Pakistan in the 1970s, resulting in his seminal books Mountain Monarchs and Stones of Silence (and influencing Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard that brought international attention to the species), and which also led to the creation of Pakistan’s Khunjerab National Park.
In Pakistan, WCS has created a multi-year program to help protect one of the last extensive high-elevation arid conifer forest ecosystems in Gilgit-Baltistan, home to the snow leopard and the snow leopard’s key prey species across much of this region, the flare-horned markhor. The program, which began formally in 1997, includes wildlife surveys, community-based education, and institution building for resource management, including the creation of resource committees and community rangers to monitor snow leopards and other wildlife and to stop poaching.
No accurate survey data exist on snow leopard populations across Gilgit-Baltistan. However, given that across a large part of this landscape markhor are the primary prey species for this endangered big cat, it is expected that overall anti-poaching enforcement by WCS-trained community rangers coupled with the significant upturn in markhor population is having a positive effect on snow leopards.