Around 4,000 snow leopards are surviving in the wild, but reports from Asia have shown that populations have dramatically dropped due to high levels of illegal capturing in the high mountain ranges of Central and South Asia.
The estimation published by TRAFFIC has proved that about four snow leopards are being killed each week. This large cat is part of the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species since 2003 and is also considered the National Heritage Animal of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What is TRAFFIC?
TRAFFIC is a project created by the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to monitor the index of wildlife in different areas worldwide. The monitoring network seeks to ensure that wildlife trade is at sustainable levels and in agreement with domestic and international standards.
TRAFFIC’s survey on snow leopards showed that between 221 and 450 animals have been poached each year. Considering the limits that investigation on illegal trade has, it is possible that the numbers are higher.
Snow leopards usually reproduce at elevated areas such as alpine and subalpine zones, inhabiting areas in China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Russia and Tajikistan, all around the Himalayan and Tibetan plateaus.
These mammals are naturally equipped to survive in cold environments with thick layers of hair and muscles that burn enough calories to keep their bodies warm in extreme conditions.
Due to their biological composition, snow leopards can hunt animals up to three times their weight, and in some areas, solitaire snow leopards are hunting domestic sheep, cattle, and animals that are also the source of food products to humans.
Fighting for food
Farmers’ communities established around the areas where snow leopards inhabit are now being affected by the hunting habits of the snow leopard population, causing a human-wildlife conflict.
To some experts, most of the killing is happening because of retaliation against the species. Nomad communities that are also inhabiting the alpines may be part of the movement that is reducing the population of snow leopards, added to regular poachers, that kill animals to offer their claws, bones, teeth, and skin in illegal markets.
Several remains of snow leopards killed by villagers have been found by journalists and travelers. Locals state that the wild animals are killing their sheep and goats, animals necessary for their survival, so killing the leopards is the only solution they find to protect their property.
There is no official response from authorities or law enforcement units, so communities are performing whatever they believe is right to protect their land and their source of food.
Only 21 percent of snow leopards were poached for illegal trading, according to the TRAFFIC report. Actually, “products” from snow leopards are not as popular as other wild animals’ remains in black markets, so experts consider that trading them in local markets is not the main issue.
E-commerce and online markets may find snow leopards more attractive than local illegal markets, considering that some advertisements offer the claws and teeth as medicinal products. Also, there is a significant community of fans of wildlife’s remains, but the sale of snow leopard’s parts is almost opportunistic.
“Compensation schemes and innovative predator-proof corrals are making a difference but we urgently need to expand these to benefit communities – and snow leopards – across Asia’s high mountains. The killing will continue unless we all work together to drastically reduce human-wildlife conflict and ensure that mountain communities can co-exist with snow leopards,” said Rishi Sharma, from World Wildlife Fund.
The way out
There are some initiatives to save both snow leopards and the communities’ stability. Kyrgyzstan’s government, along with conservationist groups, is implementing a program to protect some areas as wildlife sanctuaries. Hunting concessions have been removed in Shamshy, a sector where the animals can migrate to.
Cameras in Shamshy have proved that several snow leopards are now inhabiting there, so the initiative is showing that it is possible to secure vital wildlife habitats where species are given the protection needed to survive; while protecting communities to interact in dangerous ways with the animals.
Lawmakers and authorities must act in other areas to execute programs where both wildlife and human are safe. Local communities can also be part of the strategy, creating areas to protect sheep owned by landlords and separate them from wild animals.
Asia needs as well a structured cross-border cooperation plan, considering that the wildlife-human conflict and poaching activities are present along international borders. Authorities must provide safety to their locals and certainly, must investigate poaching activities that hurt not only the balance of the ecosystem but the cultural heritage as well.