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Snow leopards are no longer endangered, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe

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They’re now considered vulnerable to extinction

Snow leopards are no longer considered endangered, but they’re still vulnerable.
Photo by Julie Larsen Maher

Snow leopards are no longer an endangered species; they’re now considered “vulnerable” to extinction. But scientists caution that the big cats are not out of danger, facing threats ranging from poaching to climate change.

The animals got their new designation from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an environmental organization that keeps track of the conservation status of plants and animals. The decision was based on a new assessment that determined that snow leopard populations are still declining, but not as fast as we previously thought, says Peter Zahler, who directs the snow leopard programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and took part in the assessment. And it’s actually long overdue: the IUCN says that because of a miscalculation in snow leopard populations in the past, the species should have been listed as vulnerable as far back as 2008.

Though the announcement is good news, it doesn’t mean it’s time to celebrate. “Nobody is saying that snow leopards are safe and saved,” Zahler tells The Verge. “They’re not doing as badly as we thought, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing well.”

Snow leopards are big cat predators from Asia, where they live in cold high mountains in 12 countries, including China, India, Afghanistan, and Russia. Since 1972, the animals have been listed as “endangered” in the IUCN’s Red List, an internationally recognized standard for assessing extinction risk. To be considered endangered, species have to have global populations of fewer than 2,500 mature adults, and have a decline rate of 20 percent over 16 years. The new assessment by several conservation organizations found that the snow leopard doesn’t meet the two key criteria, says Tom McCarthy, the executive director of the Snow Leopard Program at Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization that took part in the assessment.

Using improved methods to determine snow leopard populations, the IUCN found that there are more than 2,500 mature adults in the world, with an estimated decline rate of at least 10 percent over 23 years. (Experts now estimate there are about 4,000 snow leopards in the wild, and as many as 10,000.) The last time the snow leopard was assessed, in 2008, researchers used flawed methodology to calculate the number of mature individuals. So the animals might have been faring better for a few years now. “The species should have been listed as Vulnerable in 2008,” the IUCN says.

Still, experts say that the new designation means that snow leopard populations are still dropping, just not as rapidly. “They are comparatively in a better place,” Zahler says.

The animals are threatened on many fronts: they’re poached for their skin, which is used for luxurious furs, as well as for their bones, which are used for medicinal potions in some parts of Asia, Zahler says. Their prey — wild goats and sheep — are also declining, either because they’re killed by people or by newly spreading diseases. This loss of prey leads to snow leopards attacking livestock, which then leads to people killing snow leopards in retaliation. Their habitat is threatened by the expanding construction of roads, mines, and railways, which limits their movement. And finally, the animals are in danger because of climate change: as the world warms, the snow leopard’s range in the cold high mountains will shrink. That could lead to a loss of up to 30 percent of its habitat in the Himalayas alone, according to the WWF.

Conservation efforts around the world include educating locals about the risks snow leopards face, in order to stop poaching and protect its habitat. Building predator-proof corrals also help reduce conflict with herders, in an effort to stop retaliatory killings. The challenge is that the snow leopard’s range covers more than 695,000 square miles in 12 countries. “It’s a lot of work,” Zahler says.

Last year, giant pandas were also changed to vulnerable on the Red List, a step up from endangered. But just like with the snow leopards, scientists called for caution, as these animals play key roles in the ecosystem. Snow leopards, for instance, control prey populations, which in turn keeps the habitat healthy. “I have concerns that the change in listing will be misinterpreted,” Zahler says. “There’s still a real need for conservation action on their behalf to make sure they’re safe.”