Don't let the snow leopard become a mere memory

Bradnee Chambers calls for collaboration to save its dwindling numbers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 5:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 11:22pm

Snow leopards often travel huge distances along ridge lines and cliff bases. Increasing threats from the growing human footprint dissect their habitat. Growing human populations and the demand for more land for farming are even encroaching into protected areas.

As snow leopards are forced to live in closer proximity to humans, conflicts are almost inevitable. Following the overhunting and poaching of their favourite prey, the endangered Argali sheep, leopards are turning to domestic animals instead.

The snow leopard's splendid coat has also contributed to its downfall. The species is now considered endangered.

Despite the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a lucrative illegal trade flourishes as leopards are killed for their skin and bones to meet the demands of the fur industry and traditional Chinese medicine. A top-quality leopard skin garment - accounting for between six and 12 animals - could command up to US$60,000 in affluent markets abroad.

We cannot afford fruitless attempts to conserve this magnificent big cat

However, it is not the local hunters who benefit from this unsustainable trade - their share of the profit is unlikely to be much more than US$100 per skin, and frequently considerably less. But in these remote, underdeveloped and poverty-stricken regions, even US$50 is a considerable sum.

Estimates suggest there are between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild from Afghanistan in the west to China to the east, Russia to the north and Myanmar to the south. However, the breeding population is probably little more than 2,500 animals distributed over an area of more than a million square kilometres.

The Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum that begins on Tuesday in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, might change the course. In promoting the conservation of the snow leopard, Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambaev is playing a role similar to that performed by Russia's Vladimir Putin at the Global Tiger Summit in St Petersburg in 2010.

There, a cast of celebrity supporters including Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as donor nations and conservation non-governmental organisations, attended and US$350 million was pledged to try to double the number of tigers living in the wild. Despite countries making encouraging noises, half had failed to meet their reporting obligations under CITES. With the cameras gone, will the enthusiasm remain to turn the fine words into effective deeds?

The snow leopard, one of the tiger's smaller, more elusive and enigmatic cousins, is in a similar predicament. Kyrgyzstan has already hosted a preparatory meeting, with the support of the World Bank. Two additional meetings followed in March and in May, attended by representatives of CITES, the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, the US Agency for International Development, and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

CMS is well represented in the region - of the 12 snow leopard range states, six are parties to the convention, four more participate in regional CMS conservation instruments and one of the other two is reported to be close to accession to the convention.

There are many forums dealing with the conservation of endangered species. We cannot afford fruitless attempts to conserve this magnificent big cat. It would be best to collaborate and pool strengths to ensure fully co-ordinated conservation efforts. The World Bank's resources and the Convention on Migratory Species' expertise and experience in the region could be the winning combination that the snow leopard so desperately needs.

Dr Bradnee Chambers is executive secretary of the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals