Snow leopards could vanish completely as climate change worsens, conservationists warn.
Climate change is threatening the snow leopard's fragile mountain habitats and could "push the species over the edge," according to conservationists.
Rising temperatures could cause the tree line to shift further up into the mountains and see farmers planting crops and grazing livestock at higher altitudes, meaning the big cat would lose more than a third of its already shrinking habitat. It also faces threats such as poaching and conflict with nearby communities, according to a report published by conservation group, WWF, on International Snow Leopard Day.
Notoriously elusive, snow leopards are known as the "ghosts of the mountains" and have entered local folklore in places like Kyrgyzstan where they roam. The country's Issyk-Kul lake is said to have derived its salt content from the tears of the snow leopard. With the animal's population believed to be as low as 4,000 in Central Asia's snow-capped mountains, the myth appears all the more relevant today.
But climate change is not only threatening snow leopards in the region. Their habitat is also home to major watersheds that serve hundreds of millions of people in Asia. Over 330 million people live within 10 kilometers of rivers that start in snow leopard territory. Climate change could cut water supplies, affecting people across the continent, said WWF.
WWF called for "urgent" action to prevent further habitat degradation to protect the snow leopard and the area's water supplies.
"India, Nepal and Bhutan have proven that it's possible to increase the number of iconic species like tigers and rhinos," said Sami Tornikoski, leader of the WWF Living Himalayas Initiative. "Together governments, conservationists and communities can achieve similar successes with snow leopards and drag them back from the brink."
WWF says it will continue with its snow leopard strategy to save the species, including using camera traps and satellite collaring to collect more data on the big cat. Gaining more knowledge of the snow leopard and its habitat will aid conservation efforts, said WWF.
"There are gaping holes in our knowledge of snow leopards - from their populations to their mating and feeding behavior - and their habitats," said Rishi Kumar Sharma, global snow leopard leader. "These gaps must be filled so that we have the data to develop more effective conservation strategies."