Snow leopards are so elusive that they have been given the nickname of the ghost of the mountains. However, conservationists now believe that the big cats – which roam steep hills from Siberia to the Himalaya – may not be quite as rare as they thought.
For years, it was thought there were anywhere between 4000 and 7500 of them across the near two million square kilometres of mountainous land they inhabit. However, that estimate has now been revised upwards to a probable count of at least 7500 snow leopards, and possibly as many as 8700. The new figures suggest that the big cat should be reclassified from endangered to vulnerable but that does not mean the population is in recovery.
Dr Tom McCarthy of Panthera told Lonely Planet that snow leopards still faced significant threats, often getting killed in retaliation for preying on livestock. He said: “Their primary natural food source of wild mountain sheep and goats are in decline, and often being poached or mismanaged. When their natural prey disappears, they tend to turn to livestock. They’re also still very valuable on the black market both for their bones for the traditional Asian medical market as well as their pelts, which are sought after.”
New roads, new railways, and the inevitable changes wrought by global warming are also growing concerns for their survival. Dr McCarthy, one of the world’s foremost snow leopard experts, said: “Recently, there has been more studies and people are starting to believe the numbers are higher than we thought. It is just that we are getting more information. We always use the term guess-timate, the science is a bit better, there are more people in the field but we have got to do a much better job so that we can monitor what’s happening over time.”
He said snow leopard numbers were still in decline but not as dramatically as the 1990s, particularly after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Dr McCarthy said conservation efforts were stemming the losses but that there could be no let-up in protecting one of nature’s most beautiful animals, one so elusive that humans rarely ever see them in the wild.“We can further slow the decline,” he said, “and specific areas where declines have been rapid and steep, we can bring them back. It will take concerted effort … we can’t let up our conservation efforts.”