Washington - The first study to assess threats to snow leopards across their entire range finds a dramatic decline of the big cats in many countries over the past decade. The species is being threatened by illegal killing and trade across central Asia, Russia and the Himalayas, according to a report released today by TRAFFIC, World Wildlife Fund and the International Snow Leopard Trust.
The study found a sharp rise in hunting in the 1990s to supply the black market and there are estimated to be just 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards left in the world - making the mountain-dwelling cats as endangered as tigers. "Fading Footprints: The Killing and Trade of Snow Leopards" found that the leading threats to the species are trade in furs and other body parts and retaliatory killing by herders protecting their livestock.
The report notes that snow leopard products are regularly smuggled to Europe and the Middle East and that Western aid workers and military personnel stationed in Afghanistan have created a new market for pelts in Kabul. Snow leopard bones are also being used as a substitute for tiger bone in traditional Chinese medicine as countries crack down on the illegal tiger trade.
The problem of Afghanistan-based Westerners buying snow leopard skins was first documented by a United Nations Environmental Programme post-conflict assessment released in January. Afghanistan may have only 100 to 200 snow leopards left.
"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. "That's a powerful incentive to encourage killing Afghanistan's dwindling population of the cats."
A groundbreaking global initiative to improve snow leopard conservation, the Snow Leopard Survival Strategy, was also launched today by the International Snow Leopard Trust. 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.
"More than 70 conservationists from 18 countries helped develop the strategy - providing us with a clear plan to ensure the survival of the snow leopard," said Brad Rutherford, executive director of the International Snow Leopard Trust, based in Seattle. "The cooperative spirit among snow leopard researchers and conservationists is what gives me hope we can save these amazing cats."
"Fading Footprints" shows that the driving forces behind the illegal killing of snow leopards vary from region to region, with the species and its parts being traded in all 12 countries where the cats are found, with the possible exception of Bhutan. Killing and trade is prohibited in most of those countries and all commercial international trade is prohibited by international treaty. The report found 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, although the pelts and other body parts then often end up in trade. The loss of prey, due to overhunting, is a threat throughout the cat's range and likely contributes to snow leopards' attacks on livestock.
"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 report author Stephanie Theile of TRAFFIC, the world's leading wildlife trade monitoring network. "It is also vital to provide economic incentives for snow leopard conservation to the herders who live in the animal's range. For example, more schemes should be developed for alternative sources of income and improving herding practices to reduce conflict between the local communities and snow leopards."
Snow leopards are found in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. WWF and other conservationists have created innovative programs to help herders protect their livestock from snow leopards, provide alternative income to herder communities and reduce the unsustainable hunting of the snow leopards' prey, which often prompts the cats to attack livestock.
"WWF is working in countries across the snow leopards' range to address the rising level of threat to this species," Dillon said. "In Mongolia, for example, WWF initiated an anti-poaching team and also supports Snow Leopard Enterprises, a non-profit handicraft enterprise started by the International Snow Leopard Trust. This project offers herders an opportunity to increase their income in return for protecting the snow leopard."