Snow leopards get closer to extinction as Himalaya gets warmer

I cambiamenti climatici stanno riducendo l’areale dei leopardi e aumentando il conflitto con gli umani. Perso il 20 per cento della popolazione negli ultimi 16 anni.

Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are fascinating yet mysterious animals. They dominate Himalaya’s peaks and live in extreme conditions, at 1,500 to 6,000 metres of height. Climate change is putting at risk the survival of many species, particularly that of these large felines that depend on mountain habitats.


Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) live from 1,500 to 6,000 metres of height


More than one third of snow leopards’ habitat could become uninhabitable due to rising temperatures. The alarm has been given by WWF, which published the report entitled “Fragile connections – Snow leopards, people, water and the global climate change”.


According to the environmental association, climate change could lift up tree limits, allowing man cultivating and grazing livestock at higher altitudes. This would force snow leopards to shelter in always smaller and fragmented ranges, where they are more likely to come into conflict with humans.


The current conservation status of the “ghost of mountains” is dreadful: it is listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN Red List. In fact, the population of snow leopard has dropped by 20% in the past 16 years. The major threats are the conflicts with mountainous communities, which consider these animals as a threat to livestock and to their own lives, as well as poaching, habitat loss, and the decrease in preys.


A rubble and debris from a landslide seen from the trail between Dengboche and Tuckla Pass above Pheriche in the Everest region of the Himalayas in Nepal.  The region is currently being severely affected by climate change including an increased risk to human life from Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFS) caused by the accelerated melting of glaciers to form glacial lakes which continue to swell dangerously beyond ther natural ability to drain safely. Bad weather, seismic activity (common in the area), and lansides, like the one seen here can all act as triggers for these floods.. The Sherpa people who live in the valleys and communities below stand to lose both their lives and their livelihoods should this happen. With a recent history in the area of other catastrophic Glacial Lake Outburst Floods the local people know all too well the constant threat that hangs over them.
Over 330 million people depend on Central Asian mountains for their water supply © WWF/Steve Morgan


Currently, there are only 4,000 individuals left in the wild, divided in different populations. Climate change, added to pre-existing threats, could be the fatal blow for the species, reducing the populations to unsustainable numbers.


Moreover, climate change not only has impacts on wildlife. Leopard’s mountain habitat extends on many of Asia’s main water basins, including 12 countries. WWF’s report, published ahead of the UN climate change conference of Paris (COP21), highlights how over 330 million people live within 10km of rivers that start in snow leopard territory, and directly depend on those rivers for their water supplies.


Rising temperatures could drastically alter water flowing from these mountains and threat the survival of people of the entire continent. “Reversing the downward trend in snow leopard numbers and conserving their fragile habitat require conservation efforts on an unparalleled scale,” said Rishi Kumar Sharma, WWF global snow leopard leader.


leopardo delle nevi ripreso da fototrappola in Mongolia
Rare image of a snow leopard captured by a photo trap on the Munkhkhairkhan Mount, in Mongolia © WWF-Mongolia/PA


In order to protect snow leopards, WWF is coordinating a global strategy for the species conservation. The first step is increasing the knowledge on these elusive felines, through photo traps and satellite monitoring through radio collars, in order to collect more data on the biology, habits, and most of all, on the real diffusion of the snow leopard.

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