Conservationists Fear for Snow Leopard

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, August 14, 2003 (ENS) - Illegal killing and trade are threatening the survival of the snow leopard, according to a report released today by conservation groups. There has been a dramatic decline of the species in many countries over the past decade, the report finds, and only 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards are left in the world.

Prepared by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, the study is the first to assess threats to snow leopards across their range, which includes 12 states across Central Asia, Russia and the Himalayas.

Although the species lives at high altitudes in rugged mountain terrain, snow leopards are being killed in numbers as high as at any in the past, according to the report "Fading Footprints: The Killing and Trade of Snow Leopards."

TRAFFIC documents a sharp rise in hunting in the 1990s to supply the black market and determines that the leading threats to the species are trade in furs and other body parts and retaliatory killing by herders protecting their livestock.

The range states of the snow leopard are Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Tajkistan, Uzbekistan. snowleopard

Snow leopards, like this one in the wild in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, are being killed for the black market. (Photo by Fritz Polking courtesy WWF/Canon via U.S. Newswire )
A key concern for conservationists is that there is no shortage of laws - national and international - designed to protect the snow leopard. Killing and trade is prohibited in most range countries and all commercial international trade is prohibited by international treaty.

Yet the species and its parts are being traded in all countries where the cats are found, with the possible exception of Bhutan, TRAFFIC says.

Snow leopard products - primarily pelts - are regularly smuggled to Europe and the Middle East and bones are being used as a substitute for tiger bone in traditional Chinese medicine.

Of further concern, the report says, is that Western aid workers and military personnel stationed in Afghanistan constitute a new market for pelts in Kabul.

Afghanistan may have only 100 to 200 snow leopards left, but the trade in pelts reflects an economic angle to the species' plight.

"Snow leopard pelts can sell for as much as $1,000 in Kabul, which is more than double what a herder there makes in a year," said Tom Dillon, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "That is a powerful incentive to encourage killing Afghanistan's dwindling population of the cats."

This is hardly just a problem in Afghanistan - pelts can fetch thousands of U.S. dollars on the black market in Kazakhstan and have been sold for under $100 by hunters in Nepal.

Regional poverty is a driving force behind the plight of the snow leopard, but it is critical to address the specific root causes of illegal killing and trade of the species in different states, says Stephanie Theile, program officer of TRAFFIC Europe and author of the report.

Theile documents, for example, that snow leopards are primarily killed for trade in the central Asian region and the Russian Federation.

Across the Himalayan region, the main threat is conflict between snow leopards and herders, who kill the cats to protect their livestock.

Even snow leopards killed because of this conflict often end up in the illegal trade, as the economic incentives are too tempting to ignore. snowleopard

Captive breeding programs have been successful and there are some 600 to 700 snow leopards in zoos across the world. (Photo by Dennis DeMello courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society)
"There is an urgent need for range states to increase their enforcement efforts, such as enhancing anti poaching activities where trade is the most prominent threat," said Theile. "It is also vital to provide economic incentives for snow leopard conservation to the herders who live in the animal's range."

Theile recommends that "more schemes should be developed for alternative sources of income and improving herding practices to reduce conflict between the local communities and snow leopards."

TRAFFIC released today's report along with the WWF and the International Snow Leopard Trust, which has also launched a new global initiative to improve snow leopard conservation efforts.

Under the strategy, considered a blueprint for the survival of the endangered cat, each of the 12 countries where snow leopards are found will be encouraged to adopt its own, region-specific survival plan for the species.

According to Brad Rutherford, executive director of the International Snow Leopard Trust, more than 70 conservationists from 18 countries helped develop the strategy, which he calls "a clear plan to ensure the survival of the snow leopard." snowleopard

Snow leopards can weigh as much as 120 pounds and grow to six feet from head to tail. (Photo courtesy International Snow Leopard Trust)
WWF supports several existing projects that can serve as models for others, says Dillon, such as anti poaching team in Mongolia and a non-profit enterprise started by the International Snow Leopard Trust that offers herders an opportunity an opportunity to increase their income in return for protecting the snow leopard.

"It is plainly not acceptable that the killing of these highly endangered species has continued into the 21st century,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of WWF-International’s Species Programme

Getting a handle on the existing - or historical - population levels of the species is tricky, as snow leopards are elusive, solitary animals that live in remote mountain locations.

And even though the report gives an estimate of 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild, there is a good chance the figure is closer to the lower end of that range and could be as low as 3,500.

Much of the documentation in the report comes from the 1990s and it establishes a clear downward trend for the species, according to TRAFFIC.

The snow leopard was categorized as an endangered species by the IUCN - The World Conservation Union in 1972.