The decision was announced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the global standard for assessing extinction risk.
The iconic big cats’ conservation status was improved from “endangered” to “vulnerable,” but the threat of extinction remains. Experts warned that the species still faces serious threats from poaching and habitat destruction.
The elegant yet elusive snow leopards, live in the mountains of central Asia, were first listed as endangered by the IUCN in 1972, due to ‘retaliation’ killings.
The status change followed a three-year assessment process by five international experts. Dr. Tom McCarthy, who runs the Snow Leopard Program with Panthera, was one of them.
“To be considered ‘endangered,’ there must be fewer than 2,500 mature snow leopards and they must be experiencing a high rate of decline,” he explained. “Both are now considered extremely unlikely, which is the good news, but it does not mean that snow leopards are ‘safe’ or that now is a time to celebrate.
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 Snow Leopard Trust, which aims to protect the big cat through community projects, strongly opposes the status change. It plans to challenge the decision with the IUCN. “We believe it could have serious consequences for the species,” the group wrote in a blog post.
Snow leopard researchers believe the species’ decline may have been slowed by conservation projects; including some to protect farm animals from the predators, which are sometimes, killed in revenge for livestock losses. The number of protected areas within the snow leopards’ habitat has also increased significantly in recent decades.
The rarely-sighted cats live in the craggy peaks of central Asia; including the Himalayas, and Russia’s remote Altai mountains. Their habitat covers more than 694,980 square miles, across 12 countries. Snow leopards are usually found at elevations of 11,480 to 14,760 feet. They are solitary, normally hunt at dawn and dusk; and are able to kill prey up to three times their own weight. The big cat feeds on wild animals, but will also prey on livestock. Their spotted coats change with the seasons; from a thick, white fur to keep them warm and camouflaged in winter, to a fine yellow-grey coat in summer.
Scientists say they are threatened by poaching for their fur, infrastructure developments, and climate change.
Retaliatory killings by farmers are not uncommon, but are rarely reported.