A lot has happened regarding snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in the past two months. Genetic analyses revealed that there are three subspecies of snow leopards, and world leaders recently met to strengthen their efforts to protect this enigmatic cat. Now, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is considering downgrading the snow leopard’s threat status from Endangered to Vulnerable. As this article by Prerna Bindra demonstrates, this has led to controversy.
The IUCN Red List is the most prestigious system for determining the extinction risk of non-human animals. It classifies species in the following categories, ranging from least to most threatened: Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct. The threat level a species is placed in helps determine how much funding is directed to its conservation, and how seriously governments work to protect it. The IUCN’s plan to downgrade snow leopards from Endangered to Vulnerable, despite mounting threats to their survival, is therefore concerning.
The snow leopard’s proposed re-categorization has been prompted by a recent study. In it, Drs. Jackson and Mallon claimed that snow leopard numbers are higher than previously thought. They also say that downgrading snow leopards is a sign of success, since it shows that conservation works.
But other snow leopard experts contend that Jackson and Mallon used unreliable techniques to estimate the cat’s population. As Bindra writes in this article, the most rigorous methods for determining the numbers of elusive species involve camera traps and genetic analyses. Jackson and Mallon relied on less precise techniques in 63 of the 69 areas in which they claim snow leopard populations have risen.
Furthermore, only 2% of the snow leopard’s range has ever been reliably surveyed. This means scientists have little information about the species’ status, and current estimates are likely too high.
Lastly, threats to snow leopards and their high mountain ecosystems are mounting. Livestock-related conflicts, poaching, and habitat degradation are all on the rise. Border tensions are adding to the problem, and climate change may dramatically alter conditions in Asia’s tallest mountains. Downgrading snow leopards from Endangered to Vulnerable, along with the decrease in funding it might entail, would thus seem to be poorly timed.
As for my own opinion, it is crucial to remember that I am not an expert on snow leopards. I agree that it is important to highlight conservation successes, because hope is a powerful force. However, it is dangerous to claim victory prematurely. With only 2% of snow leopard habitat rigorously sampled, I do not see how there can be enough data to downgrade the species from Endangered to Vulnerable. If we know that the cats are going to be under increasing pressures from factors like climate change, then it is best to err on the side of caution. Extreme caution.
Be sure to read the original article from Prerna Bindra and IndiaSpend, as it contains much more information.