Snow Leopards And Humans Are Competing For Food, With Tragic Results

Herders kill hundreds of the endangered big cats each year.
A snow leopard in an enclosure at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland.
A snow leopard in an enclosure at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland.

Humans kill hundreds of snow leopards every year, often as “retaliation” for attacking livestock, according to a new report from wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

The elusive, endangered felines — nicknamed “mountain ghosts” — roam the high mountains of central Asia, and population estimates vary.

As few as 4,000 snow leopards may remain in the wild, according to a news release from TRAFFIC, which is a joint effort by the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, big cat protection group Panthera notes that scientists estimate between 4,500 and 10,000 wild snow leopards are left.

TRAFFIC’s survey found that between 221 and 450 snow leopards have been poached each year since 2008, based on the estimates of experts working in regions where the cats live. Those numbers could actually be higher, the report says, noting that it’s difficult to monitor illegal trade.  

Snow leopards live in 12 different countries, but more than 90 percent of the apparent poaching of the animals takes place in China, Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Tajikistan.

More than half of those leopards are killed by herders who are targeting animals that have preyed on livestock like sheep and cattle.

A single leopard can kill up to 20 sheep or goats when it enters a pen, Rishi Kumar Sharma, a snow leopard conservation expert with WWF, told The Huffington Post in an email.

“Most of the communities living in the high mountains are impoverished and marginalized and loss of livestock to wild predators has significant bearing on their livelihood,” he said.

A smaller proportion of the cats — 21 percent — were killed specifically for their pelts, teeth, claws and bones, all of which can be sold through illegal channels.

There is sometimes a connection between so-called “retaliatory killings” and this illegal trade, according to the report: Herders who kill leopards primarily to protect their livestock may end up selling the carcass for a profit.

“The snow leopard doesn’t turn up that often in markets, what the report authors have concluded is that it’s a bit opportunistic, if a snow leopard is killed and the parts or the pelt is saleable it’s almost like getting your own back for the livestock you’ve lost,” TRAFFIC’S James Compton told the BBC.

Therefore, the report suggests it’s important to take steps to decrease conflicts between leopards and humans, including introducing “predator-proof corrals” for livestock and educating herders in how to minimize encounters with leopards. The report also recommends government compensation programs to give money to herders who have lost animals to leopards, so that they would have less of a financial incentive to kill the wild animals.

“We have to enable mountain communities to co-exist with snow leopards,” Sharma said.

A snow leopard cub plays with his mother at a Zurich zoo.
A snow leopard cub plays with his mother at a Zurich zoo.

The organization also calls for stronger enforcement of anti-poaching laws and better monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade.

“TRAFFIC’s analysis confirms the worrying scale of illegal killing of snow leopards,” Compton said in the release. “This urgent wake-up call provides a blueprint for [Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program] action at national and transboundary levels to protect snow leopards from threats posed by poaching and trafficking.”

But hunting isn’t the only threat looming for the beautiful big cats. Scientists believe that if climate change continues unchecked, more than one-third of the leopards’ habitat could disappear, according to a WWF report released last year.

But Sharma said there’s still hope.

“Snow leopards will not go extinct if we act now and reduce the myriad range of threats to snow leopards,” he said. “But we need to act quickly and scale up the good conservation models to truly benefit snow leopards as well as mountain communities.”

This article has been updated with comment from Rishi Kumar Sharma.