More than 70 per cent of snow leopard habitat remains unexplored: WWF report confirms

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 a WWF report.

Planet Outlook
May 17, 2021
More than 70 per cent of snow leopard habitat remains unexplored: WWF report confirms

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. The report is based on an analysis of 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 highlights that lack of basic data could be hampering its conservation.  

The snow leopard lives in 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 most of the habitat is still unexplored and we don’t have a full picture of the status of this magnificent wild cat,” said Rishi Kumar Sharma, WWF Global Snow Leopard Lead, 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 3 per cent of the big cat’s range has robust data on abundance. Though snow leopard research in the past few decades has been growing exponentially, there are only four research hotspots where multi-year research is being carried out. All the research efforts, spanning over a century, covered only 23 per cent of 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.  

Globally, there could be as few as 4,000 snow leopards left in Asia’s high mountains and this remaining population faces continued 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 although conservationists are addressing several of the threats, a robust analysis of how effective the interventions are in achieving their objectives remains deficient. 

 “Snow leopards are not just the emblems of Asia’s high mountains but are also critical to sustaining the landscapes they live in, which support water sources for over 2 billion people. The report will be a guide for the conservation community to diversify and prioritize areas of conservation research to preserve sufficient and suitable habitat for snow leopards and to ensure water security for the vast human populations downstream.” added Margaret Kinnaird, Lead Wildlife Practice, WWF International. 

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 actionsBut more than anything else, we need a much better understanding of what the people sharing space with snow leopards think.” said Sharma.