Why the world's last few snow leopards are dying at the hands of humans

The report estimates that between 221 and 450 snow leopards have been killed since 2008, but notes that the number could be higher since killings in remote areas go undetected and it is difficult to monitor the trade of big cats.

Russell Cheyne/Reuters/File
A snow leopard walks in its enclosure at the RZSS Highland Wildlife Park near Kincraig Scotland, Britain, February 12, 2016.

Approximately 4,000 snow leopards live across central Asia, but humans have killed as many as 450 since 2008. These killings are largely carried out by either poachers, who hope to sell the animal’s valuable pelts, claws, and teeth, or by herders, whose livestock has been preyed on by snow leopards.

These numbers come via a newly published report by Traffic a wildlife trade monitoring network that is a collaboration between the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Foundation. The report estimates that between 221 and 450 snow leopards have been killed since 2008, but notes that the number could be higher since killings in remote areas go undetected and it is difficult to monitor the trade of big cats.

Some see survival prospects as bleak for the big cats. However, in Kyrgyzstan – where the remaining snow leopards are found in relatively large numbers – new conservation models have shown some signs of progress.

Between poachers and herders, it may be that herders pose the greater threat to snow leopards. "The snow leopard doesn't turn up that often in markets, what the report authors have concluded is that it's a bit opportunistic, if a snow leopard is killed and the parts or the pelt is saleable it's almost like getting your own back for the livestock you've lost," James Compton of Traffic told BBC News.

The Traffic report estimates that while only 21 percent of snow leopards are purposed hunted for sale, 60 percent of snow leopards killed end up on the market. Herders may kill for retaliation, but end up selling for profit.

“We think that what most observations, seizure records and expert opinion show is that the majority is still happening because of retaliatory killing,” Compton told BBC News. “One of the major interventions to stop that is better protection for livestock, in some of these very remote areas where you have nomad communities and herds of livestock, because that’s where the friction takes place.”

Vicious killers, snow leopards are capable of taking down animals three times their own weight and one snow leopard can kill up to 20 goats or sheep at a time if they are trapped in a pen, Tech Times reports.  For the often impoverished and marginalized mountain communities that rely on herding, loss of livestock to a snow leopard can have a big impact on quality of life.

But Kyrgyzstan has become a model for snow leopard conservation as the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Foundation, in combination with the Kyrgyz government, have been co-managing a former hunting ground as a wildlife sanctuary called Shamshy.

Herders can still graze livestock in Shamshy, but with healthy populations of ibex and mountain goat, the snow leopard’s natural prey, conservationists hope that snow leopards will be attracted to the sanctuary but refrain from attacking livestock.

According to Kuban Jumabai uulu, the director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan, the population of snow leopards has been increasing as a result of the new policies.

“Earlier this year, we had found snow leopard tracks and scratch marks on several ridgelines in Shamshy,” Jumabai uulu tells National Geographic. “ Now, [new camera-trap] pictures prove the cat’s presence in the sanctuary.” The camera-trap method can help scientists calculate population density and assess progress made.

Kyrgyzstan is an important strategic location for conservation of the global population of snow leopards as well.

“Kyrgyzstan is like [a] bridge between two large snow leopard ranges, and if we lose snow leopard in this country, then it means the global population will be isolated,” Jumabai uulu told National Geographic. “Populations are strong when they are together.”

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