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On the verge of extinction: Warmer temperatures threaten snow leopards

By Shabbir Mir

GILGIT: As climate change pushes average temperatures up, snow leopards in the northern areas are facing an existential crisis – there are far fewer places left for them to live.

Coupled with fast spreading human population, the cats are under dual treat from the environment and human beings.

“The cat is precious and its survival is in the interest of mankind,” World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Gilgit-Baltistan-chapter head Dr Babar Khan said on Saturday – a day ahead of International Snow Leopard Day, which is marked annually on October 23.

According to wildlife experts, snow leopards habitats are under threat from a variety of factors, primarily climate change, prey depletion, and greater conflict with the human population.

A study conducted by WWF-Pakistan, under the Asia High Mountain Project, shows that warmer temperatures have caused the snowline in the northern areas to recede by around a kilometre over the past 25 years, pushing the cats further towards the mountains. Some mountaineers have even seen tracks as far north as Gasherbrum-I basecamp.

The trend of reducing snowline has also invited herders to stay on the mountain for an average of 20 to 25 days per year longer than they would some 15 years back. This significantly increases the risk of crossing paths with a snow leopard.

The human-wildlife conflict is already a serious threat to the snow leopard population in Pakistan, and increased risk for leopards to prey on livestock and fall victim to subsequent retaliatory killings threatens to further worsen the situation.

“While retaliatory killings of snow leopards by local communities are uncommon, poaching for their pelts remains a major area of concern,” Dr Babar said.

According to a recent report from TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, an estimated 221 to 450 snow leopards are poached every year since 2008 across the twelve countries where the species  is found– an average of four per week. The real number could be substantially higher, as many killings in remote areas go undetected.

By contrast, a statement issued by WWF-Pakistan said that the remaining fragmented population of the species in Pakistan is estimated to be between just 200 and 400 big cats.

Over 90 per cent of reported snow leopard poaching takes place in five of the 12 snow leopard-range countries — China, Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Tajikistan.

Nepal was also flagged for having relatively high poaching levels, considering its relatively small population of snow leopards. China and Russia were most frequently identified as destinations for animals poached in other countries. Over the past decade, Afghanistan has also emerged as a major illegal market for snow leopard furs.

The report also found that over half the retaliatory and non-targeted poaching incidents result in opportunistic attempts to sell, contributing to the estimated 108-219 snow leopards that are traded illegally each year.

Unfortunately, there have been few government-led schemes to educate locals about the threatened species or how to protect the remaining cats.

“WWF is implementing a project with communities in Gilgit and Chitral to ensure conservation of the cat,” Dr Babar told The Express Tribune.

The organisation has introduced human wildlife management measures, engaging local communities especially in predation hotspots, such as Hopar Valley in Nagar, while livestock insurance schemes are another programme to help stop attacks on the snow leopards.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2016.


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