For thousands of years, snow leopards have survived in some of the most rugged and harsh landscapes on Earth, but could a combination of human and climatic factors lead to their untimely downfall?
Image Credit: pxfuel
The snow leopard is an iconic creature which stalks some of the most remote and extreme places on Earth. These majestic creatures are found on the towering Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas (home to Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain) at altitudes up to 4500m high. To put that into perspective, the UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is just over 1300m high.
However, Snow Leopards are rated ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union of the Conservation of Nature). Poaching, conflict with agriculture and, increasingly, human induced climate change is reducing the number of snow leopards and is increasingly threatening their viability as a species.
Only 7,000 cats remain, with populations separated across 12 different central Asian and Himalayan countries, with western China (mostly Tibet) containing 2,500 of those. Nevertheless, the remoteness of the leopard’s preferred habitat has meant that snow leopards are better off than other big cat species: think about tigers, which live in densely populated east and southeast Asia, which have lost around 95% of their range.
Snow Leopard range in Asia. Image Credit: Riccardo Pravettoni, NEP/GRID-Arendal
Although climate change is clearly affecting the Himalayas, the effects of climate change on Snow Leopard’s habitats is much less simple. According to one study, the size of the snow leopard’s range will actually increase by 45% north of the 35°N latitude, but will decrease by 18% south of this line. However, the total area doesn’t necessary reflect habitat quality, with many areas on the slope of the Himalayas becoming fragmented as temperatures rise and the leopards preferred habitat type shift to a higher altitude. Mountain habitats are especially badly affected by climate change due to the sharp temperature gradient as altitude increases. Creatures at a high altitude will eventually be unable to migrate upwards, as the area of the mountain decreases the higher you go.
Of course, snow leopards have had to endure periods of natural climate change. One recent study by the Snow Leopard Trust used paleoenvironmental data (proxy data going back 100,000 years) and found that the Snow Leopard’s range underwent contractions due to climatic fluctuations. Importantly, however, this study identified areas of ‘refugia’ where conditions remained stable enough for Snow Leopards to survive. This study voices optimism that these areas may remain viable under this extreme period of human-induced warming.
Unfortunately, climate change isn’t the only issue snow leopards have to face. Although the impact of climate change on animal populations will increase rapidly in the future, factors such as urban and agricultural expansion, along with overexploitation (the direct killing of animals via hunting, fishing, logging and habitat destruction) rank as the biggest factors affecting animal populations. For the Snow Leopards, it is no different. Shockingly, it was estimated that 220 to 450 cats per year were killed by humans between 2008 and 2016, which would be between 5 to 10% of the population killed every year.
Livestock in Mongolia. Image Credit: Baron Reznik