Climate change will shrink the habitat of this apex alpine predator; the key is to spread the word about its plight and get governments acting for its conservation
The snow leopard, found on the ‘Roof of the World’ and its associated mountain ranges, collectively known as ‘High Asia’ is in trouble today as its very habitat has become its enemy. This International Snow Leopard Day, let us take a look at how climate change affects this charismatic cat.
As the impacts of climate change become increasingly frequent, the snow leopard, an apex predator of the alpine environment, will be among the first to be affected.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average annual temperature in South Asia and Tibet will increase by 3-4 degrees Celsius by 2080-2099. In addition, annual precipitation in the region too will increase.
How will this affect the snow leopard? Previous studies have shown that warmer and wetter conditions may result in forests ascending into alpine areas, the snow leopards’ preferred habitat.
In their 2012 paper Conservation and climate change: Assessing the vulnerability of snow leopard habitat to treeline shift in the Himalaya, Jessica L Forest and her co-authors estimated that under the IPCC’s high emission scenario, about 30 per cent of snow leopard habitat will be vulnerable to change along the Himalayas.
Even if emissions remain relatively low and begin to decrease below current levels by 2050, up to 10 per cent of snow leopard habitat could be lost. The researchers also predict that if forests creep upwards, species adapted to them like common leopards, dholes and tigers would follow and compete with snow leopards.
Snow leopards and their prey species would then have to migrate to even higher reaches.
Even more worryingly, anthropogenic threats may be exacerbated under climate change, according to the scientists. How? As alpine habitat shrinks, competition for its resources between livestock and snow leopard prey species would increase, ultimately leading to their local extirpation by humans. The leopards would then have to hunt livestock, which in turn would exacerbate human-snow leopard conflict.
So how can humanity help the snow leopard tide over climate change? The authors of the 2012 paper suggest that areas where these animals already exist and are less vulnerable should be identified and conservation efforts there prioritised.
“The most important things that we can do as human beings is to spread the word that there exists a species called the snow leopard which is like the guardian of the Earth’s Third Pole. It guards part of a landscape that provides water to billions of people living downstream,” Koustubh Sharma, senior regional ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust, an organisation working to conserve snow leopards, said.
“Second, talk to your friends, family and everybody else you know about it. The more people talk about issues, the more they become prioritised than sidelined. Third, if you know about it and are talking about it, we can hope that governments will begin prioritising such conservation issues as mainstream issues,” Sharma added.
A 2016 paper by Juan Li et al titled Climate refugia of snow leopards in High Asia also talked about and identified so-called ‘climate refugia’ for snow leopards. According to the authors, some species survived large climate shifts in the past as they could retreat to zones where they could shelter, persist and even expand.
They identified such refugia in an area of 1.1 million square kilometres in the Altai, Qilian and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram (TPHK) mountain ranges.
But the most important aspect of snow leopard conservation is transboundary cooperation. The snow leopard is spread across 12 countries. Even more amazingly, according to a 2019 paper Defining priorities for global snow leopard conservation landscapes by Juan Li et al, up to one third of global snow leopard habitat may be located within 100 km of an international border.
“Fortunately, a large chunk of these international borders are not fenced. What this means is that snow leopards travel across these borders without passports or visas and are hence the ambassadors of this landscape,” Sharma said.
So, if you have to conserve snow leopards and do a good job of it, you have to look at the impacts of these borders. You have to collaborate, share information and know what is happening across the border since snow leopards don't recognise human borders,” he added.
“Transboundary cooperation does not mean that we do away with these borders. But let us have greater dialogue not just about security but the conservation of an entire species and ecosystem,” he noted.
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