This has been a crazy week for snow leopard (Panthera uncia) conservation. Seven days ago, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified snow leopards from Endangered to Vulnerable. This has produced strong reactions – and not all of them have been positive.
Among other services, the IUCN manages the Red List: the most comprehensive and widely accepted metric for determining how close non-human animals are to extinction. Part of this process involves placing species into one of seven categories. Ranging from most to least threatened, they are: Extinct, Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, and Least Concern.
A team of experts began reevaluating the snow leopard’s Red List status three years ago. During this process, they became split over key parameters that affected snow leopard population estimates. Previously, snow leopards were listed as Endangered under Criteria C1. To maintain this designation, certain conditions had to be met. There would have needed to be fewer than 2,500 mature snow leopards in the wild, and there must have been a 20% population decline over the past two generations (16 years) (McCarthy, Mallon, Jackson, Zahler, & McCarthy, 2017).
According to one group of assessors, snow leopards met the requirements for an Endangered classification. But other experts found that the cats only qualified as Vulnerable. The latter designation is the one that stuck.
While this might seem like a cause for celebration, it is not. Snow leopards are still under intense pressure, and the threats they face are growing. Moreover, the new Red List assessment clearly states that the shift from Endangered to Vulnerable is a “non genuine change” (McCarthy et al., 2017). It reflects better information about snow leopard numbers, and not a significant improvement in their situation. In addition, not everyone believes this change was the right move.
Some organizations, like the Snow Leopard Trust, contend that snow leopards should still be listed as Endangered. They are concerned that this new assessment will hinder the species’ conservation, and that there is not enough good data to make valid estimates about snow leopard populations. Indeed, I previously released a post expressing my own concerns over the plan to “downgrade” (as I then called it) the species.
I am still worried about how snow leopards’ new classification might affect them. But fueling a rift between snow leopard conservationists would be even more harmful for the cats. I have spent the past week trying to learn more about this assessment, and there is absolutely no evidence of any sort of foul play or the existence of any “enemies.” The scientists who submitted the Vulnerable assessment were exceedingly cautious in their calculations. The disagreement over the snow leopards’ status comes down to one factor: insufficient data.
There is a glaring need for more information, derived using the most rigorous methods available, about how many snow leopards exist throughout their range. Having more and better data about the species will make it easier to avoid controversy when snow leopards are reassessed in 5-10 years. Furthermore, it will allow conservationists to better protect the cats and their high mountain ecosystems.
It is also vital to correct any misunderstandings that might have arisen as a result of the snow leopard’s recent status change. The species is still at high risk of extinction. Now is not the time to legalize the trophy hunting of snow leopards, or to engage in other potentially harmful activities.
If we are able to generate better data about snow leopards, and if we remain committed to conserving this iconic species, then there might be real reasons to celebrate in the not-too-distant future.
Frequently Asked Questions on Snow Leopard’s Red List Status – Snow Leopard Trust
Red List Assessment for Panthera uncia – McCarthy, Mallon, Jackson, Zahler, & McCarthy.