Snow leopards; are they really that important?

Snow leopards are found high (almost 18000ft) in the cold mountains of Himalayas to which they are highly adapted. They are the world’s most elusive cats. They are spread over 12 countries in Central Asia including Pakistan, China, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Russia and more. They have a thick fur having a pattern with dark rosettes and spots. The pattern on every snow leopard is unique. This pattern helps them to camouflage in their icy/rocky habitat. This allows them to stalk their prey, even at night. They are solitary creatures and have a lot of skills to survive. They are able to kill a prey 3 times their own weight.

Snow leopards belong to species of cats but have longer tails than other big cats. To help the leopards maintain their balance on rocky and steep slopes, the tail is around 1m long in length. Leopards also wrap themselves around their tail to have additional protection against the cold while they rest. This also protects them from Hypothermia (very low body temperatures).

Before discussing why snow leopards are endangered, let’s look upon why they are important.

Snow leopards prey on mountain sheep and goats. They are the predators at the top of the food web in the area. The ecological balance would be disrupted without the snow leopards. For example, if snow leopards were to reduce significantly; herbivore (plant-eating) population would tend to increase, this would result in reduced vegetation and that would lead to habitat loss and destruction.

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Why are snow leopards endangered?

Now let’s talk about why snow leopards are endangered.

Snow leopards face many threats which include poaching, habitat loss and increased conflicts with communities. Not just humans but nature is also putting the leopards’ future at risk as climate change is altering the cold habitat on top of the mountains.

1. Poaching

Over the years snow leopards have been killed because of their beautiful fur. Not only for their fur, but their bones are also quite in demand as they are used in Traditional Asian Medicines. Tiger bones are preferred for the Traditional Asian Medicines but since tigers are so rare that snow leopards are being sacrificed. The trade of snow leopard body parts is illegal but still, however, on the rise. The price of such a hunt is approximately around $5,000-$10,000 which is quite high and attracts the hunters.

2. Conflict with communities

Many animal herders kill snow leopards in order to protect their livestock, just so that snow leopards don’t attack them. Since wild sheep and goats are also killed by humans, snow leopards don’t have a choice but to rely on domestic livestock for their survival. This forces a herder to kill any snow leopards on sight. This is because most herders are dependent upon their livestock for survival so they have to protect them.  Hunting as a sport is another reason why snow leopards are being targeted.

3. Shrinking habitats

Snow leopards require vast areas to live. However, as the human and livestock population is increasing rapidly, further areas are being occupied and the area which snow leopards need for themselves is shrinking. New roads and colonies are formed. Not only this, but mines are also fragmenting the remaining range of land.

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Further Reading: Habitat Fragmentation

4. Climate Change

This is the most important reason. Climate change is making the survival of snow leopards difficult as the mountains have a fragile environment which is slowly changing. I mentioned how snow leopards are only found at the very top of the mountains in Himalayas; if these ice caps start melting, we can’t expect the species to survive without a habitat.

How can we save the snow leopards?

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is the worldwide organization which includes many smaller organizations that have the purpose to save, protect and preserve the animals and plants which are being endangered and nearing extinction.

The IUCN has a specific criterion according to which if the species are in trouble they would be listed in the IUCN’s “Red List of Threatened Species”. Snow leopards might also become a part of it in the coming years.

One of the major ways we can protect these snow leopards from being hunted down is to boycott products made from leopard skin or fur. This would reduce the high-priced demand of leopard fur.

Another way is to take part in fighting climate change. You can do so by using eco-friendly products, planting more trees and donating to causes that primarily fight climate change like EnvironmentBuddy!

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