Snow leopard: Long-endangered big cat upgraded to 'vulnerable' status

Two snow leopard cubs play in their enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo on Tuesday during their public debut.   Richard Vogel    
  AP

The rare snow leopard is no longer listed as "endangered".

"The snow leopard remains under acute threat", The Snow Leopard Trust said.

The snow leopard is now no longer considered an endangered species and has been upgraded to "vulnerable", worldwide conservationists say.

"The species still faces "a high risk of extinction in the wild", and is likely still declining - just not at the rate previously thought".

The snow leopard's range stretches across some of the largest mountain ranges in the world, including the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and Altai ranges, as well as small ranges throughout Asia. Biologists are concerned that the snow leopard's extensive range-about a million square miles-makes it hard for adults to find one another to breed.

The Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has changed the big cat's extinction risk assessment from "endangered" to "vulnerable", one step down that scientifically means it's under less threat than perceived.

In that time, experts determined the Himalayan cats no longer numbered fewer than 2,500 in the wild, and was not in steep decline - the two criteria for being considered 'endangered'. But this is much slower than previous estimates, and the IUCN chalks that up to conservation programs.


Dr Tom McCarthy, executive director of Panthera's Snow Leopard Program, explained that while gently increased conservation efforts have aided in improving the snow leopard's status, it's important not to misinterpret the IUCN's listing. "The IUCN's vulnerable status means a species is still vulnerable to extinction", he said.

"In the case of the snow leopard, less than 2 percent of the species' range has ever been sampled for abundance using reliable techniques such as camera traps or genetic analysis".

The change in status came after a three-year assessment process by five worldwide experts, including scientists from academia and from Panthera, Snow Leopard Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Society - organisations active in snow leopard conservation. "Nobody is saying that snow leopards are safe and saved", Zahler tells The Verge.

"There is also an increasing number of domestic livestock raised by local people in these high mountains that degrades the delicate grasslands, disturbs wild sheep and goats and drives them into less productive habitats", he said in a statement.

Challenges faced by the animal include poaching, with hunters targeting their thick fur and bones. 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.

Some positive developments included an increase in the number of protected areas, as well as stepped-up efforts by local communities to protect the animals from poachers. "It's a lot of work", Zahler says.

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