In the snowy high mountains of central and South Asia lives the snow leopard. Its grey rosetted fur-coat perfectly camouflages with the craggy hills, enabling it to prey on nimble footed mountain ungulates like the Himalayan blue sheep, Himalayan tahr, markhor and more. The snow leopard is considered an indicator species that has a bearing on the health and functioning of the high-altitude ecosystems.

Although the snow leopard can be found across a massive geographical range of close to two million square kilometres, spread over 12 countries, there are somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 of these felines in the wild, according to a 2016 estimate.

Poaching is making a serious dent in the global population of snow leopards.Photo credit: Nicolas Goulet/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]
Poaching is making a serious dent in the global population of snow leopards.Photo credit: Nicolas Goulet/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the conservation status attributed to snow leopards from Endangered to Vulnerable in its Red List of Threatened Species. The reason for such a decision was that International Union for Conservation of Nature perceived there were enough snow leopards for the species not to be Endangered anymore.

Beauty becomes curse

Besides climate change and developmental projects such as roads and mining that threaten the snow leopard’s habitat, depleting number of wild prey has a direct impact on the number of these predators. But perhaps the most dire threat to their survival comes from poaching of the snow leopards for their body parts and pelt and retaliatory killing by herders for having preyed on their livestock.

A recent study by experts, who have tracked illegal trade of animals, in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, estimates the number of snow leopards that have been poached and illegally traded between 2003 and 2014.

Based on the information gathered from 11 of the 12 countries where the snow leopard is found, the study reports 439 snow leopards fell to illegal trade in the 11-year period. This is a loss of approximately 8%-10% of the entire population of these predators. The study also compares the number of snow leopards traded in the new millennium (2003-2012) with those traded between 1993 and 2002. The researchers report a 61% increase in snow leopard trade between these two decades. The study also finds that only 50% of the crimes of illegally trading snow leopards are prosecuted. Out of these prosecutions only 20% see conviction, globally.

Global distribution range of snow leopard in central and south Asia. Courtesy: IUCN Red List Version 3; McCarthy et al. 2017.
Global distribution range of snow leopard in central and south Asia. Courtesy: IUCN Red List Version 3; McCarthy et al. 2017.

“This study uses carefully compiled information to demonstrate that illegal trade in snow leopards and their parts is a real global threat to the species,” said Yash Veer Bhatnagar, a senior scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, who has researched snow leopards and their habitats for the past two decades. Bhatnagar was not part of this study. “Bringing out that poaching is making a serious dent in the global population (of snow leopards) and that the trade seems to be increasing, is an important contribution of this paper,” added Bhatnagar.

Skin, claws and even live snow leopards traded

The researchers who were with TRAFFIC India at the time of the study – Aishwarya Maheshwari who is now a faculty at Banda University of Agriculture and Technology in Uttar Pradesh and Shekhar Kumar Niraj who currently is the additional principal chief conservator of forests (Project Tiger) of Tamil Nadu state – trawled the Internet, from October 2013 to March 2015, with a combination of keywords in Chinese, Russian and English, related to the trafficking of snow leopards.

The researchers collated information concerning poaching of snow leopards from TRAFFIC newsletters of central and south Asian countries and poaching and trade reports from 2003 to 2014.

To get a sense of ground realities, the researchers also conducted surveys in markets that specialise in fur and leather goods in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in October 2013 and the Afghan cities of Kabul, Mazar-E-Sharif and Heart in September 2014.

A snow leopard photo captured by the camera trap. Photo from the Snow Leopard Conservancy.
A snow leopard photo captured by the camera trap. Photo from the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Between 2003 and 2014, from their literature search, the researchers computed that 337 snow leopards were illegally traded. While from their market surveys, they recorded over a hundred of these cats.

Skins of snow leopard were one of the most sought after body parts and 60 of them were recorded. The researchers also recorded 70 claws on sale in Xinjiang province of China. One snow leopard each being smuggled alive from the Afghan-Pakistan border and the Pamir region.

Apart from Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, Maheshwari also travelled to the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan to get a sense of the illegal trade situation there. “It was alarming as well as surprising,” said Maheshwari. With limitations to photography and documentation, Maheshwari’s observations were restricted to informal inquiries with shopkeepers regarding sourcing snow leopard parts for prospective agents or buyers spread in different parts of the world.

He found that if snow leopard skin, body parts or fur were not readily available in stock, the shopkeepers were willing to supply them within 10 to 15 days time and some advance money. “So that was alarming,” said Maheshwari.

A Buyer Beware exhibit at Logan airport in Boston, United States, educates international travelers about the hazards of purchasing wildlife products abroad. Photo credit: Bill Butcher/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A Buyer Beware exhibit at Logan airport in Boston, United States, educates international travelers about the hazards of purchasing wildlife products abroad. Photo credit: Bill Butcher/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to the researchers, Mongolia, Russia, Afghanistan and Tibet are main hotspots to source snow leopard parts. They report that China and Afghanistan together account for 80% of snow leopards illegally traded in the past decade.

However, illegal killing of snow leopards could also be rampant in countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The governments there issue limited licenses to hunt local prey species. But due to the inhospitable terrain it becomes difficult to monitor the hunting and sometimes animals like snow leopards are killed.

India a transit country

But it is the markets driving this demand that are more threatening to snow leopards. According to Niraj, “markets in Europe and Asia, in Iran, Qatar, Taiwan and Hong Kong are major supply destinations.” And aiding this supply are Hong Kong, Myanmar, Nepal and India that serve as transit markets.

“In India the trade links are routed through traditional transit markets such as Chennai, Delhi and Amritsar,” said Niraj. “But Hyderabad and Bangalore have also emerged as new transit points.”

India serves as a transit market in the global supply chain of snow leopard parts.Photo credit: Eric Kilby/Wikimedia Commons.Eric Kilby/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0
India serves as a transit market in the global supply chain of snow leopard parts.Photo credit: Eric Kilby/Wikimedia Commons.Eric Kilby/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0

The researchers recommend a combination of actions to curb the illegal trade in snow leopards. Improvements in gathering intelligence not only within a country but across countries where the snow leopard is found, would be very helpful. Strengthening the existing laws as well as establishing anti-poaching squads could prove to be a deterrent against poaching. Programmes such as Himal Rakshak implemented in Sikkim – where local villagers are voluntarily enlisted to conserve their landscapes – should be developed.

Ensuring prompt and reasonable compensation for livestock killed by snow leopards would discourage villagers from retaliating against the predators.

But perhaps the most important measure according to Maheswari would be “strengthening political will as nothing will happen without it.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.