In the most remote mountain ranges of Asia, on the highest peaks and in the steepest canyons, one of the world’s most elusive big cats is edging towards extinction. What can be done to secure a future for the majestic snow leopard?
Snow leopards live a solitary life in the mountains of Central Asia, usually at elevations of 3,000 to 4,500 metres (although they have been observed at 5860m). Given the extreme altitude of their perilously steep environment, and the bitterly cold climate, they are among the hardest of top predators to study. Nobody knows for sure how many there are. Estimates range from as few as 3,290 to as many as 8,700 – a difference of over 5,000 cats.
Snow leopards are well adapted to the intense cold of their environment. Firstly, their fur is dense – the longest and thickest of all the big cats – and their large, fur-covered feet act as natural snowshoes. Secondly, their wide nasal cavity warms the cold air before it reaches their lungs. And lastly, a large, muscular chest allows the felines to take deep breaths that help them absorb oxygen from the thin, high-altitude air (at 4,000m there is only 60% of the oxygen found at sea level). Without maximising oxygen intake, the cats would tire easily when climbing. Snow leopards also have very long, thick tails, which they use for balance when chasing prey in precipitous territory, and to wrap around their bodies to keep themselves warm while resting. Snow leopards are spread across 12 Asian nations. The largest numbers are in India and China, but fragmented populations occur in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia and Mongolia.
Snow leopards are one of the most endangered big cat species, threatened by habitat loss, climate change, scarcity of prey and conflict killings as a result of livestock predation. Illegal poaching is also a massive concern, driven by the same consumer demand which is driving the poaching and trafficking of tigers across Asia. Snow leopard skins are used for furnishings and home decor, as well as taxidermy specimens. Their bones are offered as an alternative to tiger bone in traditional medicines, while skulls and teeth are in demand for use as amulets or luxury jewellery. From 2008 to 2016, between 220 and 450 snow leopards were killed and traded each year – an average of one per day.
The ideal snow leopard habitat is bleak, dangerous, cold and desolate – not most people’s idea of a nice place to live. Nevertheless, according to one estimate, over 330 million people live within 10 kilometres of a river that originates in snow leopard habitat, and directly depend on those rivers for water security. Snow leopards inhabit the tallest mountain ranges on the planet, which makes them particularly susceptible to climate change. Their habitat encompasses the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau – an area sometimes referred to as ‘the third pole’ because its ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions. This region is the source of the 10 major river systems that provide irrigation, power and drinking water for over 1.6 billion people in Asia – nearly 20% of the world’s population. But scientists say that glaciers in this region are melting away, and could lose more than a third of their volume by the end of the century – and even more if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed. As well as concerns about future water availability for human communities throughout the Asian continent, the loss of ice would drastically impact snow leopard populations.
The consequences of climate change in the ecosystem where the snow leopards live are numerous. Increasing temperatures could thaw out permafrost, (the permanently frozen layer of soil), leading to the emission of a large volume of methane and carbon dioxide gases into the atmosphere. Without the permafrost, the ground would become softer, increasing the likelihood of landslides. Climate change would also impact the treeline, allowing forests to spread to higher altitudes and gradually reduce the snow leopards’ habitat. A 2012 study by WWF warned that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase steadily, 30 percent of snow leopard habitat in the Himalayan portion of their range may be lost due to treeline shift. Furthermore, the vegetation that grows in the high mountain meadows would be superseded by plants less palatable to the wild alpine herbivores that snow leopards prey on.
Snow leopards predominantly hunt wild sheep and goats. The three most important species are Asiatic ibex, blue sheep or bharal and argali. Unfortunately, these species are not as abundant as they once were. Apart from predation by snow leopards, they are also hunted by local communities for subsistence use – and poached for meat, trophies and skins. Degradation of habitat due to competition with domestic livestock has further reduced populations of snow leopard prey. The cats are opportunistic predators. As their natural prey becomes harder to find, they will sometimes hunt domestic livestock. Other food in a snow leopard’s diet may include markhor, Himalayan tahr, deer, horse and camel. When they
can’t find large prey, snow leopards will also take smaller animals such as voles, marmots and pika.
More than half of the human population living in the remote regions where snow leopards are found is made up of pastoralists. Of these, 40% live below the poverty line, depending on their herds of livestock for food and livelihood. The loss of even a single animal can create financial hardship – and a desire for retribution. Measures to protect livestock – such as the use of metal grates to create predator-proof corrals – have proven effective. However, there is inevitably the risk of retaliatory killings by herders. The scarcity of natural prey, combined with a shrinking habitat and the encroachment of farmland, forces snow leopards to occasionally hunt domestic livestock, leading to retaliatory killings by farmers.
Conservationists have now responded to human-leopard conflict by introducing incentives such as community insurance schemes to help herders bear the economic burden of livestock loss while still sharing the landscape with snow leopards. Some programs have given Himalayan villagers a chance to diversify their incomes. The Himalayan Homestay Program (initiated by the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust) trains villagers to host travellers in their homes. The desire among tourists to see snow leopards has helped to promote a more positive attitude to the big cats. The sale of local handicrafts can also help reduce the poverty that underlies conflict killings. Snow Leopard Enterprises – a conservation program operating in communities throughout Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and India – buys items such as felt rugs, ornaments and toys made by local pastoralists, selling them to snow leopard supporters across the globe. In return, the local communities pledge to keep snow leopards safe from harm.
Tales from the Mountain – Oriol Alamany
One winter morning, while staying in the Spiti Valley in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, photographer Oriol Alamany was told by a local spotter that a male snow leopard had been seen on a plain above a rocky canyon. Oriol raced to the scene, with camera in hand, but when he arrived, he couldn’t see anything, just bare snow. Then he noticed two black spots – the ear tips of a snow leopard. He decided to wait, knowing that snow leopards don’t usually move until dark. What followed was eight icy hours of waiting, at -15°C below zero. Finally, at around 6pm, with the sun already behind the horizon, the leopard lifted its head, looked at Oriol for half a minute, and then disappeared again into the white. Despite it taking him a whole day to achieve this single image, Oriol describes it as ‘an exhilarating experience in the wild mountains of the Himalayas.’ (below left)
Until recently, there have been very few photographs of snow leopards taken in the wild. They are notoriously difficult to see, and live in extremely inaccessible areas. Oriol sees them as an icon of the mountains, and hopes that both leopard and human can continue sharing ‘the wildest mountains on Earth’. (below right)
At 11am one morning, Oriol found a female snow leopard accompanied by her two juvenile cubs. It was a family he knew well, from a trip the previous year. Both youngsters had survived and were now about 21 months old, the age at which they usually begin to become independent from their mother. But all three were still together and, on this particular day, unusually active. Oriol followed them all day long, as they descended along a mountain valley. (Below right) Taken at dusk at an altitude of 4400 metres, the mother and her young climb up the canyon wall once more. (Below left) The two young follow their mother (just out of the frame) along the edge of a deep canyon.
Since 1986, the snow leopard has been listed on the IUCN Red List as ‘Endangered’ – until the controversial decision was taken in 2017 to reclassify it as a ‘Vulnerable’ species. Himalayan conservationists believe that the risk of extinction has been understated, because there is no accurate data on how many snow leopards are left in the wild. Researchers from all 12 Asian nations where snow leopards occur began to fill that knowledge gap in 2018, with a five-year census that will take in 10-20% of the snow leopards’ range. Using camera traps, radio collaring, and hair and scat identification, the researchers hope to get a better idea of the population size. But any conservation strategy must also involve the local communities, who – like the snow leopards – depend on the mountains for their survival. If they can be convinced that counting the cats will help them more than killing them can, then efforts to protect the ‘ghost of the mountains’ are far more likely to succeed.
High in the Himalayas, snow leopards are fighting for their survival. But it’s not a fight they have to win alone. In October 2019, all twelve snow leopard range states met in Delhi to review efforts to ensure snow leopard recovery, with some ambitious discussions around doubling the global population during the next 10 years. Meanwhile, a proposed highway that would cut right through snow leopard territory in Nepal is being fought by the local community, in conjunction with conservation groups who have raised enough funds to buy the land and create a vast, permanent, snow leopard conservation corridor. Local activists in Mongolia are demonstrating extraordinary bravery to prevent the destruction of snow leopard habitat from mining interests.
Snow leopards are considered a barometer of the health of the mountain ecosystem because of their wide range and position at the top of the food chain. Protecting their delicate mountain ecosystem will have a cascade of benefits for the other species too – including red pandas, grey wolves, steppe eagles, pangolins, wild yaks, and lynx. The race is on to save the iconic ghost of the mountains. If conservationists can find out how many there are, and how best to protect them (in partnership with the communities they share their habitat with) then these endangered cats have a chance of remaining ‘ghosts’ in name only.