Snow Leopards’ Biggest Threat: Climate Change

Activists call for urgent action to mitigate global warming.
(Photo: World Wildlife Fund/Facebook)
Oct 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

The snow leopard habitat is melting. It’s no secret that global warming is radically altering the environment, affecting the homes of both humans and animals. But conservationists are worried warming temperatures will push the vulnerable species over the edge.

If drastic action is not taken to curb the effects of climate change, more than a third of snow leopards’ habitat will likely become unsuitable, according to a report released this week by the World Wildlife Fund.

The snow leopard population has declined 20 percent in the past 16 years, leaving as few as 4,000 living in the wild, according to the report. Approximately 600 live in captivity. The elusive predators live in rocky mountain ranges in Central Asia and have suffered from a host of threats, including human conflict and habitat encroachment. WWF’s Fragile Connections report found that climate change greatly exacerbates these threats.

Warming weather invites humans to begin planting crops and allowing their livestock to graze in the higher altitudes where the big cats live. Because livestock is an easy target for the species, whose natural prey is decreasing, conservationists are concerned that habitat encroachment will result in retaliatory killings by farmers. Climate change will also raise the tree line up the mountains. Snow leopards have adapted to hunt above the tree line, and this change could significantly reduce their hunting range.

It’s not just the snow leopards that will suffer from these changes. Rising temperatures will cause the snow, glaciers, and permafrost in the region to melt quickly, sending less water into rivers and lakes that 330 million people depend on.

“Urgent action is needed to curb climate change and prevent further degradation of snow leopard habitat. Otherwise the ‘ghost of the mountains’ could vanish, along with critical water supplies for hundreds of millions of people,” said Rishi Kumar Sharma, WWF’s global snow leopard leader.

WWF is working on a global strategy to save the species, including on-the-ground work with communities in the snow leopards’ 12-state range, providing information about livestock management, landscaping plans, and water management.

But Kumar and his colleagues hope this threat will inspire political leaders to take action, “Highlighting the plight of the snow leopard and its fragile mountain home underlines the need for decisive action on a global scale to keep climate change in check,” the report reads.

Along with the report, the group also released rare footage of a female snow leopard and her cub.