Posted on 17 May 2021
Karachi, 17 May 2021: A large majority of snow leopard habitat, spanning over 12 range countries, remains under-researched, and critical knowledge gaps must be plugged for informed snow leopard conservation, according to the WWF report.
The report titled, “Over 100 Years of Snow Leopard Research- A spatially explicit review of the state of knowledge in the snow leopard range” examines the current state of knowledge across their range by reviewing peer reviewed published papers on the species and its habitat. The report shows some glaring gaps in our knowledge of this elusive, and threatened, big cat and reveals that lack of basic data could be hampering their conservation.
“The elusive snow leopard lives in a rugged terrain – some of the harshest landscapes on the planet – so research poses significant logistical challenges. Serious efforts to learn more about the species began in the 1970s but the snow leopard’s remote and vast range and elusive nature, means that still most of the habitat is unexplored and we don’t have a full picture of the status of this magnificent big cat,” said Rishi Kumar Sharma, WWF Global Snow Leopard Leader, who is the lead author of the report.
The WWF report points out that despite a major research focus on snow leopard population assessments, less than three per cent of the big cat’s range has robust data on snow leopard abundance. Though snow leopard research in the past few decades has been growing exponentially, only four research hotspots, where multi-year research is being carried out, emerged. All the research efforts, spanning over a century, covered only 23 per cent of the snow leopard habitat. Most of their vast range – possibly over 1.7 million km2 of rugged mountain terrain – has never been researched from a snow leopard context.
According to the report, Pakistan covered the largest geographic area of the snow leopard habitat in the country to calculate snow leopard populations, followed by Bhutan, Nepal, India, Mongolia, Tajikistan and China. Bhutan had the largest proportion of its snow leopard habitat covered by population density-focussed research (76 per cent) followed by Pakistan (24 per cent) and Nepal (19 per cent).
Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Programmes, WWF-Pakistan said that frequent sightings of snow leopards in the Chitral National Park in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Passu Valley, Khyber, Hopper Valley, Baltoro Glacier and other areas in Gilgit Baltistan indicate a viable population of the wild cat in Pakistan. He shared informed that WWF has installed camera traps to monitor the populations of snow leopards and other wildlife in GB. He was of the view that snow leopards cannot survive without immediate conservation interventions, therefore, WWF is campaigning to raise awareness among people, world leaders and politicians in range state countries to take decisive action to tackle threats facing this elusive animal. He also emphasized on transboundary cooperation among countries that are a host to the snow leopard.
WWF-Pakistan is working with GB’s Parks and Wildlife Department to reduce snow leopard poaching, conflict with communities, and piloting SMART tools to collect data on these shy big cats. The data collection will help bridge the knowledge gap that the 100 years of snow leopard research report points out. WWF-Pakistan also supports other solutions to reduce human-wildlife conflicts such as livestock insurance schemes, livestock vaccination scheme, building predator-proof corrals, advocacy and awareness, capacity building and community development. WWF-Pakistan plans to establish a GIS-based data recording system for the snow leopard population in GB which would help track trends in population, movement and will identify potential threats.
Globally, there could be as few as 4,000 snow leopards left in Asia’s high mountains and the remaining population faces traditional and emerging threats. Increased habitat loss and degradation, poaching and conflict with communities have contributed to a decline in their numbers and left the species hanging by a thread in many places. The report also highlights that though conservationists are addressing several of the traditional threats, mainly habitat degradation, human-wildlife conflict, loss of prey species, new and emerging threats such as climate change, a robust analysis of how effective the interventions are in achieving their objectives remains scarce. Although not studied much, climate change is predicted to have affected large parts of snow leopard habitat, where one third of the total habitat might become unfit for snow leopards to live in.
As part of its conservation strategy, WWF supports vital research including the use of camera traps and satellite collaring, to collect more data on the elusive big cat. In recent years, there has been a growing global focus on national-level population assessments and several range countries, and NGOs, have come up with nationwide snow leopard numbers.
“We need to build a more accurate picture of the status of snow leopard populations and establish baselines and indicators for both snow leopards and their prey species so that range states can better assess future changes and evaluate the impact of conservation actions. But more than anything else, we need a much better understanding of what the people sharing space with snow leopards think.” said Sharma.