High up in the mountain ranges of Central and Southern Asia there is a ghost. A ghost that dwells elusively, amongst the frost and the snow. A creature that spends most of its life alone, a creature that possesses a camouflage so great, that he (or she) is often near impossible to spot. Almost mythical as a result of his secretive nature, this animal is rarely seen and is very difficult to find. Who are we talking about? The snow leopard.
The snow leopard. Panthera uncia. Beautiful, majestic and intelligent the snow leopard is one of many animals listed as endangered by the IUCN red list due to their population decline, a consequence of a number of factors including habitat and prey loss, poaching and persecution. There are now as few as 4000 snow leopards left in the wild, with numbers having fallen by 20% in the last two generations (16 years). However, recently, worrying information has come to light about the levels of poaching and persecution that the snow leopard is being subjected to. It has been claimed by a report made by Traffic (wildlife trade monitoring network) that approximately 220-450 snow leopards are being killed each year. However, realistically, this number could be much larger, as many killings in remote areas will go unchecked and unchallenged.
Of all leopards killed, it is thought that as many as 50% of those lost are killed by farmers as a revenge response to attacks on their livestock, with 20% being trapped by illegal snares. The natural prey of the snow leopard is predominantly Himalayan blue sheep and Ibex. However, as more and more of the natural habitat of the snow leopard is converted to farmland, prey numbers are falling, causing more attacks on livestock. In addition to this, a further 20% are killed due to the value of their pelts in the illegal fur trade. These killings are hugely damaging to an already threatened and vulnerable population, but what can be done to stop it? Alternatives do exist and included leopard-proof corrals (fencing built from low cost material) for livestock and insurance schemes for farmers if livestock is targeted. However, the largest problem here is law enforcement, with Traffic stating that less than 25% of known cases of snow leopard poaching is even investigated and only around 1 in 7 results in any prosecution. This is totally unacceptable when it comes to the protection of an important and highly endangered species.
China and Russia are the main countries where poached animals are being trafficked, with Afghanistan also possessing a major illegal market in snow leopard fur. Although the number of pelts seized has fallen, which is thought to be due to increased law enforcement, around 200 leopard skins are still being illegally traded each year. Unfortunately the problem does not stop there for the snow leopard, with the threat from humans being far from the only enemy they face on the battlefield of survival. Climate change and warming temperatures are currently threatening to leave up to a third of the snow leopards current habitat range uninhabitable as the tree line migrates higher into the mountains, causing farmers to plant crops and graze livestock at higher altitudes.
If action is not taken to prevent the poaching of these great cats, we could be facing another major extinction. It would seem that both time and space are running out for the elusive and beautiful ghost of the mountain.
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