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Snow leopard is no longer endangered
Sep 20, 2017

[GS Paper III: (Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation)]

Why in News?

  • On September 14, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the snow leopard from the Endangered category to the Vulnerable category in the Red list categories.
  • However, the IUCN also noted the population numbers could be partly speculative, given the difficulties in collecting hard data on the elusive and secretive species across all regions.

What does it mean?

  • The difference simply means that the animals have gone from "very high risk" to "high risk" of extinction in the wild. 
  • Snow Leopard were first listed as endangered by the IUCN in 1972.
  • To be considered 'endangered,' there must be fewer than 2,500 mature snow leopards and they must be experiencing a high rate of decline.
  • Being classed as "vulnerable" means a species has under 10,000 breeding animals left, with a population decline of at least 10% over three generations.

About Snow Leopard 

  • The rarely-sighted cats are usually found at elevations of 3,000-4,500m in the rocky peaks of central Asia - including the Himalayas, and Russia's remote Altai mountains.
  • 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.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

  • Created in 1948 and headquartered in Gland (Switzerland), IUCN is an international organisation uniquely composed of both government and civil society organisations.
  •  It provides knowledge and tools that enable human progress, economic development and nature conservation to take place together.  
  • It is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.
  • The IUCN Red List has become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species. It provides information about range, population size, habitat and ecology, use and/or trade, threats, and conservation actions that will help inform necessary conservation decisions. 

Initiatives taken by India

  • Project Snow Leopard: It was launched in 2009 for strengthening wildlife conservation in the Himalayan high altitudes. It aims at promoting a knowledge-based and adaptive conservation framework that fully involves the local communities, who share the snow leopard’s range, in conservation efforts.
  • Snow leopards are given the same protection as the tiger, listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 – the highest protection afforded to a species.
  • Snow leopards occur in the Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan areas of five states- Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in northern India. 

Threats

  • Habitat and prey loss: As humans continue to push further into the mountainous areas with their livestock, the snow leopards’ habitat is getting boxed in, degraded and fragmented by increasing human intrusion. Overgrazing has damaged the fragile high altitude grasslands, leaving less food for the wild sheep and goats that are the snow leopard’s main prey. Such increasing loss of its natural prey, which is also partly due to hunting for meat, is a major threat for the long-term survival of snow leopards.
  • Retribution killings: With less natural prey to feed on and growing numbers of domestic animals being grazed in their hunting territories, snow leopards have increasingly adapted to prey on livestock. This brings them into conflict with local people. Herders in these areas live a precarious economic life and loss of even a single sheep causes great economic hardship. This has led to several instances of retaliatory killing of snow leopards.
  • Poaching Another major challenge for the protection of snow leopards is poaching for their fur and skin. Their bones and other body parts are also in demand for use in traditional Asian medicines.
  • Other challenges Tourism, developmental activities like road construction and human settlement in the habitat area are some of the other factors that pose threat to the species. 

Way Forward

Though researchers believe, the species' decline may have been slowed by conservation projects, IUCN also noted that the emerging potential threats to the species include mining and other infrastructure development that could affect their habitats. Since snow leopards are the top carnivore of their ecosystem, supporting a healthy population of prey species is also critical for their conservation.


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