The snow leopard is a predator at the apex of the food chain in its habitat, making its conservation essential for the health of the whole mountain ecosystem of the Himalayas and other great Asian ranges. This region, known as the Earth’s “third pole,” is home to 14 of the world’s highest peaks and almost 100,000 square km of glaciers.
“It’s an astonishing animal, the product of millions of years of evolution that have allowed it to adapt to the harshest conditions of extreme cold, and an ability to hunt its prey on the steepest high-mountain slopes,” says Charudutt Mishra, Executive Director of the International Snow Leopard Trust, in an interview shortly after learning of the bestowal of Worldwide Conservation Award for its work on protecting this endangered cat. “The species is amazing in itself, but furthermore when you protect it, you are also helping to protect a whole ecosystem and its associated biodiversity.”
The snow leopard’s range sums two million square kilometers and extends across the territory of 12 Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). This is an ecosystem that provides absolutely vital services, starting from the supply of water to a third of the world’s human population, who depend for drinking water and irrigation on the rivers that flow down from these mountains.
The species currently faces multiple threats. Firstly, it suffers “revenge killings,” Mishra explains, by farmers whose herds are attacked by the feline, as well as poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking. Further, over the past decades its habitat has become increasingly fragmented due to major infrastructure development, primarily highways, mines and dams. And to all these risks must be added climate change, which has heightened the dangers confronting the species and the whole mountain ecosystem of Asia, due to the frequency and intensity of extreme climate events and natural disasters “The entire region,” Mishra observes, “is warming nearly two times faster than the Northern Hemisphere average.”
It was this fragile situation that led to the creation of the International Snow Leopard Trust over forty years ago, in 1981. In the last decade, the organization helped create an “intergovernmental alliance,” which has brought together different organizations and promoted cooperation between the governments of the 12 countries where the snow leopard lives in order to protect the species and its ecosystem. In 2013 officials, politicians and conservationists arrived at a common conservation strategy enshrined in the Bishkek Declaration, signed by the governments of the 12 range countries, to cooperate in the conservation of the cat and its habitat, and formed the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program.
“This pledge testifies to the power of nature conservation to foster international cooperation, even among countries engaged in disputes,” says Mishra. “With the snow leopard’s habitat taking in so many territories, its conservation would not be possible without cross-border cooperation.”
The project has identified 24 protection areas (some 500,000 km sq.) covering 25% of the species’ range. Of this, conservation measures are already being rolled out in about 140,000 km sq. with the support of each country’s authorities, the scientific community, NGOs, companies and local communities. Mishra highlights in particular the effectiveness of the anti-poaching patrols formed by over 400 forest rangers trained under this effort, the installation of fencing to protect livestock from snow leopard attacks and, thus preventing conflicts with local communities, the development of sustainable livelihood and nature tourism projects, and the launch of environmental education programs to raise public awareness of the value of conserving the species.
According to some estimates, as few as 4,000 individuals of snow leopard survive. Mishra insists however that this is “a preliminary approximation,” adding that the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program is facilitating the first scientifically robust, large-scale study to determine the size and range of the current population, with results due within a year.
“We have to understand,” he explains, “that conserving nature is never just a local matter. It is a global challenge that concerns us all, governments, firms and civil society. As the pandemic has shown, we live in an interconnected world, so what is happening with biodiversity in a remote mountainous region of Asia can impact directly on the other side of the planet.”
MORESnow Leopard Trust