Study Suggests Snow Leopard Population Estimates are Inflated

A portrait of a snow leopard.
Are snow leopard population estimates too high? A new study indicates that they might be. Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), Santago by Spencer Wright. CC BY 2.0

A study performed by researchers with the Snow Leopard Trust suggests that snow leopard (Panthera uncia) population estimates are too high.

The study – conducted by Suryawanshi, Khanyari, Sharma, Lkhagvajav, and Mishra (2019) – analyzed all of the peer-reviewed articles about snow leopard numbers from around the world. The scientists discovered that most of these publications were biased, despite their authors’ best efforts.

The first problem is that less than 1% of the snow leopard’s range has been surveyed with reliable methods. Furthermore, the few habitat patches that have been appropriately surveyed tend to be areas with unusually high densities of snow leopards. So, when scientists use the results from those locations to estimate the global snow leopard population, their results will almost certainly be too high.

Suryawanshi et al. (2019) also found that the size of a sampled area affected snow leopard population estimates. Smaller study areas, especially those under 500 square kilometers, make snow leopard densities appear higher than they actually are.

According to the original article by Matt Fiechter of the Snow Leopard Trust, this inverse relationship between study area size and snow leopard population estimate affects half of all the reliable papers on the cats’ abundance.

Inflated snow leopard population estimates are problematic because they make the species appear less threatened than it is, which might prevent them from receiving as much protection as they need.

For instance, in September of 2017 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the global body that determines how threatened animals are – downgraded the snow leopard from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable.” This was a controversial move that split the scientific community, and those who opposed the down-listing objected that they didn’t have good enough evidence to make such a risky decision. This new study by Suryawanshi et al. (2019) lends credence to those claims.

This post has been a summary of an article released by Matt Fiechter of the Snow Leopard Trust. For more information, click below.

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