Range countries to lead new estimate of global snow leopard population as downgraded threat status remains controversial

  • The newly announced Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards initiative, called PAWS for short, will be overseen by the Steering Committee of the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), which is comprised of the Environment Ministers of all twelve snow leopard range states.
  • The snow leopard had been listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986 until late last year, when its threat status was downgraded to Vulnerable — ostensibly welcome news that ultimately proved quite controversial.
  • In a recent commentary for the journal Science, snow leopard researchers questioned the scientific merit of the data the IUCN relied on in downgrading the threat status of snow leopards. GSLEP says it categorically rejects any change in snow leopards’ threat status until PAWS is complete and a scientifically reliable population estimate is available.

No one really knows for sure how many snow leopards there are left in the world, but an initiative spearheaded by snow leopard range countries and scientists announced last week aims to change that.

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is found in 12 countries in Central and South Asia. Its elusive nature and inaccessible, mountainous habitat were once believed to be keeping the snow leopard population relatively stable, but in recent years habitat loss and degradation, declining prey due to illegal hunting, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade have all taken their toll, and the species is widely believed to be in decline.

The species had been listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986 until late last year, when its threat status was downgraded to Vulnerable — ostensibly welcome news that ultimately proved quite controversial.

The IUCN reported that “new available data” had led to the threat status downgrade. But even the IUCN notes in its assessment of the snow leopard population that “There are no robust estimates of Snow Leopard global population size and the various figures available are best regarded as guesses.” Those best guesses place the global snow leopard population anywhere between about 4,000 to 7,500 individuals, according to the IUCN Red List.

The newly announced Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards initiative, called PAWS for short, will be overseen by the Steering Committee of the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), which is comprised of the Environment Ministers of all twelve snow leopard range states.

“The continuing gap in knowledge about the status of the snow leopard populations is concerning,” Wali Modaqiq, Deputy Director General at Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement. “It is about time that we take up scientifically sound initiatives for population assessment of the world’s snow leopards through this collaborative effort between range countries and partner organizations. Together, I believe we will not only be able to estimate the world’s snow leopard populations, but also to protect them.”

There is very limited data on demographic data, such as age of first reproduction, for wild snow leopards. According to the Snow Leopard Trust, the information we do have does not support assumptions made in the IUCN assessment. Photo Credit: Snow Leopard Trust.

Data collection and analysis for the PAWS project will be carried out by a number of range state government agencies as well as conservation NGOs like Panthera, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the Wildlife Conservation Society and academic institutions including the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, the University of Massachusetts in the U.S., and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“Along with all twelve range countries, almost all the major international and national nongovernmental organizations interested in snow leopard conservation are on board for PAWS, as are leading researchers from various academic institutions,” Dr. Koustubh Sharma, the International Coordinator for the GSLEP Secretariat, said in a statement. “This means we’ll have access to the expertise and resources of an extremely broad coalition. And, most importantly, it also means we will be able to develop a population assessment everybody agrees on.”

GSLEP released a “Statement of Concern” when the status of the snow leopard on the IUCN Red List was changed last year. GSLEP’s concerns include the fact that “due to the challenges of conducting research on a species as elusive as the snow leopard, the scientific community has been able to assess populations in less than 2% of the global snow leopard range with scientifically reliable methods. This too has not been sampled randomly, but is biased towards the best habitats, thus rendering any extrapolations inaccurate.”

In the statement, GSLEP goes on to “Reject categorically” any change in the conservation status of the snow leopard until the PAWS work is completed and the species’ threat status can be based on scientifically reliable population estimates.

The countries that harbor snow leopards within their borders aren’t the only parties raising concerns about the data that informed the IUCN’s updated threat status assessment. In a commentary published in the journal Science earlier this month, two snow leopard researchers, Dr. Charudutt Mishra of the NGO Snow Leopard Trust and Dr. Som Ale of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the U.S., question the scientific merit of the data the IUCN relied on in downgrading the threat status of snow leopards.

“New estimates placed snow leopards at 4678 to 8745 in 44% of their range, implying a much higher figure than previous estimates,” the researchers write in the Science commentary. “However, the new, higher figures come from small study areas, located in the best habitats, and those unrepresentative numbers have been extrapolated to a vast range half the size of Europe. For 63 of 69 study samples, opinions and sign surveys yielded new numbers, whereas studies using scientifically valid techniques such as camera traps and genetics barely covered 2% of the range.”

Mishra further explains that, in his view, the IUCN made some insupportable assumptions that led to the threat status downgrade. “In the assessment of the snow leopard, the IUCN assumed an age of reproduction of two to three years,” he said in a statement. “However, studies of wild snow leopards have shown no reproduction whatsoever at two years old, and in zoos, there have only been three recorded cases, out of 344 documented births. And yet, the IUCN assessment presumed that 25% of the two-year old snow leopards could breed in the wild. That’s analogous to assuming that since there are examples of 12-year old girls becoming pregnant, 25% of all girls will get pregnant at that age.”

Ale adds that “We still don’t know with any certainty how many snow leopards there really are. But recent surveys paint a rather less optimistic picture than the revised IUCN status implies.”

The University of Illinois researcher pointed to a camera trap study in Bhutan, the first full national census of the species conducted by a snow leopard range state, which found that there are 96 snow leopards in the country. Previous estimates had held that there were 100 to 200. Ale also noted that surveys in Pakistan found just 23 cats in the country’s best habitats, though it was estimated just a decade ago that there could be as many as 300 to 420 throughout the country. “If at all, snow leopards might be rarer than believed earlier,” Ale said.

Ale and Mishra also note that the threats to snow leopards remain as critical as ever, with poaching and retaliatory killings continuing unabated, according to a 2016 report by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. Meanwhile, snow leopards’ remote habitats are increasingly being opened up to human development, like mining operations, and climate change is imposing additional pressures on the cats and the ecosystems they are adapted to, the researchers said.

“The data simply doesn’t support this status change,” Mishra said in a statement. “And it’s not just an academic question. Erroneous down listing of a species gives the false impression of a reduced risk of extinction, and may lead to a reduction in conservation effort at a time when such effort is needed most.”

A snow leopard at the Cincinnati Zoo. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

CITATIONS

• Ale, S. B., & Mishra, C. (2018). The snow leopard’s questionable comeback. Science, 359(6380), 1110-1110. doi:10.1126/science.aas9893

• McCarthy, T., Mallon, D., Jackson, R., Zahler, P. & McCarthy, K. 2017. Panthera uncia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22732A50664030. Downloaded on 26 March 2018. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T22732A50664030.en

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