Usually found (or not) blending into the rocky terrain and high-altitude plateaus of the snow-capped Himalayas, the snow leopard is one of the most beautiful and elusive animals in the world. Unfortunately, it is one of the most endangered too.
A new report from TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring NGO, has estimated that there are around 4,000 snow leopards left in the wild and between 221 and 450 are being killed every year. That’s four a week.
The report is published ahead of a UN meeting on snow leopards to address the fact that their numbers are still dramatically declining, despite there being a ban on killing them in all 12 Asian nations where they are found.
Snow leopards have been officially listed as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List since 2003.
TRAFFIC also admits the numbers could be much higher as it is hard to monitor the poaching or killing in remote mountain regions.
Just under half of the deaths are due to poaching and selling the pelts and body parts (like bones and claws) for luxury items and traditional medicines in Asia. More surprisingly, the majority of the leopard deaths were from “retaliatory” killings by local farmers due to attacks on their livestock or from using non-targeted predator snares. The leopards' natural prey, such as the ibex, are also decreasing due to encroaching farmland.
The report also found that there was a decline in the number of animals specifically poached for the illegal trade in pelts, making up just 21 percent of the annual figure, suggesting a fall in the market possibly due to tighter law enforcement.
However, at least half of the retaliatory killings ended up being opportunistically sold – not so surprising when a carcass can reach up to $10,000.
Now you see me... Peter Wey/Shutterstock
To reduce the number of animals killed, the report suggests dealing with the greater immediate threat of human-wildlife conflict. It recommends local governments get involved with communities to create leopard-proof corals for livestock and offset the cost of livestock loss.
“Even if there is reduced demand for snow leopard skins, the killing will continue unless we all work together to drastically reduce human-wildlife conflict and ensure that mountain communities can co-exist with snow leopards,” said Rishi Sharma, WWF Snow Leopard Programme leader and co-author of the report, in a statement.
The report also calls for strengthening law enforcement, especially of national and transboundary borders. According to TRAFFIC, less than a quarter of known cases of poaching are investigated and just one in seven are prosecuted.
“[Now] we need to expand efforts to monitor activity on the Internet and social media as snow leopard traffickers may be moving online to try to evade law enforcement,” concluded Kristin Nowell, lead author of the report.