More than one-third of snow leopard habitat could be rendered unsuitable for the species if climate change trends continue, says a new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report. Warmer temperatures could increase crop production and grazing in areas where snow leopards currently live, squeezing the remaining snow leopards into smaller areas, and inviting conflict with humans for scarce resources.
In the past 16 years the snow leopard population has declined by 20 percent due to increased habitat loss and degradation, poaching and conflict with communities, leaving as few as 4,000 snow leopards left in Central Asia’s high mountains. The effects of climate change will exacerbate threats and further accelerate the rate of decline.
These same threats to the snow leopard will also threaten human populations in the Asia High Mountains. More than 330 million people also live within six miles of rivers originating in snow leopard territory and directly depend on these rivers for their daily water supplies, according to the report, Fragile Connections: Snow leopards, people, water and the global climate. Climate change could drastically alter the flow of water down from the mountains, threatening the livelihoods of vast numbers of people across the continent, further straining resources and increasing tension between communities and wildlife.
“Snow leopards already face numerous threats in the remote areas they inhabit. Climate change will only exacerbate these existing threats, negatively impacting snow leopards’ prey species, habitat, and the people with which the leopards share the high mountains of Asia,” said Nilanga Jayasinghe, WWF species conservation officer. “The good news is that 12 range state governments have come together to further snow leopard conservation – we now need to ensure that this gathering momentum moves forward to secure a future for the magnificent ghost of the mountains.”
Addressing these challenges has been the primary impetus of WWF’s Asia’s High Mountains (AHM) project, launched in 2012 with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). By both working directly in Asia’s high mountain communities, and influencing policy, the project ensures natural resources are managed in a way that incorporates the needs of both humans and wildlife, avoiding conflict and allowing all to prosper. The initiative draws upon leading techniques in climate adaptation and snow leopard conservation to create demonstration sites that will help pave the way for integrated, climate-smart landscape plans across snow leopard range.
"Governments across the snow leopard range have boldly committed to empowering their most remote—and often most vulnerable—communities to build the resiliency of high mountain landscapes,” said Kate Newman, Asia High Mountains project lead. “With USAID, we're working in the gateway communities nestled on the edge of the snow leopard range to embrace sustainable, climate-smart activities that will benefit both people and nature."