For a species that has been classified as ‘endangered’ since 1972, the slight increase in the number of wild animals announced on September 14 is a good excuse for celebration for the snow leopard.
What’s happened to the long-endangered snow leopard?
A 2016 survey revealed a greater number of wild snow leopards than previously estimated.
While ‘endangered’ species have fewer than 2,500 mature individuals remaining in the wild, it is now estimated that between 4,700 to 8,700 snow leopards still live in the wild.
Hence the celebrations for snow leopard lovers! This majestic cat is no longer on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ‘endangered’ species list — it is now ‘vulnerable’. While ‘vulnerable’ doesn’t mean the big cats are out of the woods yet, it’s still good news.
But conservationists warn that we can’t let this make us complacent.
(Tambako the Jaguar/flickr.com/CC-BY-ND 2.0)
While these numbers are SLIGHTLY less depressing than they were for an ‘endangered’ leopard, the update is not a reflection of any real improvements or protections for snow leopards in the wild.
Executive director of a wild cat conservation group Panthera, Tom McCarthy, cautions,
“The species still faces a high risk of extinction in the wild and is likely still declining, just not at the rate previously thought.”
The species continues to face serious threats from poaching for their beautiful thick fur and bone. There are also deadly conflicts with herders who sadly resort to killing the leopards in order to protect their livestock.
As snow leopards are native to the high-altitude regions of Central and South Asia, they are a rare sight for most people. There is a saying, you are 10 times more likely to be struck by lightning than have the luck of seeing a snow leopard in the wild.
Photographers have expressed similar sentiment; they say the leopards are unicorn-like. You may have heard stories about photographers who laid camera traps and then wait hours in the rugged snow-capped mountains, waiting for that golden moment to capture the majestic, but timid creatures in their natural element.
The animal has been revered by the local people over the generations.
There are many myths and legends about the snow leopard. A story, “The Way to Shambhala,” from Tengboche Monastery in Mount Everest National Park tells that, “A long time ago, Guru Rimpoche set the gods to watch over the secret valley, Khembalung, and keep it hidden from the world. It’s supposed to be a peaceful place, with food and everything you need for meditation.
“Only the true followers of Guru Rimpoche, the ones who really practice his teachings, can find it. There’s a guidebook to Khembalung, but if the wrong kind of people try to follow it, snow leopards will attack them at the mountain passes and drive them away…”
In another story from the 11th Century, great Buddhist-saint Milarepa was stranded by snowstorms in a cave where he was doing his solitary meditation. When the snow finally melted six month later, Milarepa’s followers came to retrieve his body, only to find that he had survived by transforming himself into a snow leopard.
Below we share some of those hard-earned shots, as well as some shots from zoos around the world involved in snow leopard conservation efforts, and hope with all snow leopard enthusiasts that this is just the beginning of more good news for this glorious big cat species in its fight for survival. Enjoy!
Top photo credit: Snow leopard. (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS Newsroom)