Stalking the mountains at the roof of the world, the enigmatic snow leopard has just had a stay of execution. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which assesses wildlife as to how good or bad they are faring, has just announced that the big cats are to be downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.
It is now thought that there are at least 4,000 adult snow leopards still prowling the peaks of the Himalayas, meaning that the felines no longer meet the criteria set by the IUCN for “endangered status”. While this is clearly good news, the conservationists involved have warned that this does not mean that the cats are doing well or face no threats. They are still declining, just not as rapidly as we once thought.
The snow leopard has been listed by the IUCN as “endangered” ever since it was first assessed by biologists back in the 1970s. Living in some of the most remote regions of the world, the cat is notoriously difficult to study, meaning that official assessments of their numbers that take place every five years or so are hard to make.
With the recent advent of better technology and monitoring systems, this has led to something of a conflict among the scientists who study the animals. Some maintain that the felines are still struggling to survive in their lofty environs and recommend snow leopards stay classified as endangered, while a separate group have successfully argued that there are more of the animals than previously assumed.
“To be considered 'endangered,' there must be fewer than 2,500 mature snow leopards and they must be experiencing a high rate of decline,” Dr Tom McCarthy, who runs the Snow Leopard Programme for the big cat charity Panthera, told BBC News. “Both are now considered extremely unlikely, which is the good news, but it does not mean that snow leopards are 'safe' or that now is a time to celebrate.”
“The species still faces 'a high risk of extinction in the wild', and is likely still declining – just not at the rate previously though,” McCarthy stresses.
This is obviously sobering news, but also means that there is more leeway for conservationists to act to save the beautiful cats from extinction. The main threats facing the animals are that of poaching and hunting – as they are singled out for their stunning coat and targeted for attacking livestock – as well as climate change, which is driving the leopards further up the mountains.
Now more than ever it is critical that efforts are maintained to study and save the most elusive of big cats.