Can the snow leopard population be restored?

Can the snow leopard population be restored?

16 July 2015

This article, by Viktor Lukarevsky, PhD (Biology) and a leading research associate at the Sayano-Shushensky Nature Reserve, was posted on the Zapovednaya Rossia website, which is devoted to Russia’s protected natural territories.

Living in some of the most difficult-to-access corners of Asia, the snow leopard has for years remained one of the most well protected large predators. It has been protected both by myths about its sacred nature and by the challenging, insurmountable mountain ridges it inhabits.


The lack of knowledge about this species is related not to its biological characteristics (its secretiveness or rarity) but to the fact that it lives in high mountain areas, where studying it becomes a real problem for specialists. A high-level international forum devoted to the snow leopard (Bishkek, September 2013) showed that there is serious concern about its population status on the global level, due to a real threat of extinction.


Individual snow leopards are killed each year under various circumstances, but such cases could not make a negative impact on the population as a whole, as there have also been compact population nuclei that have always ensured the compensation of all losses. The territorial and ethological structure of the snow leopard population is organised such that newborn female kittens either remain on their mother’s territory and inherit it or partially occupy it. As for males, with rare exceptions, they leave their mother’s territory and can travel over significant distances (sometimes hundreds of kilometres). Therefore, the well-being of the territorial population directly depends on the presence of females of different ages. If one or several females die, the territorial core/group is depleted and when the last female dies a great gap emerges in the habitat, which cannot be restored on its own even though male snow leopards periodically appear in these areas.


Toward the end of the 20th century, the status of the snow leopard population across its entire habitat began to change, with the situation reaching catastrophic proportions in the early 2000s.


The population nuclei began to come under intense pressure. Snow leopards have almost completely disappeared across the former Soviet territory (except for a very small number), while the remaining nuclei are rather insignificant.


In the late 1990s, research showed that there were over 10-12 such nuclei (snow leopard groups) in Russia, only two or three of which were considered small and unviable, whereas the others were fairly large, each consisting of five to eight individuals. The boundaries and configurations of each of them may be open to debate, but the snow leopard’s habitat in Russia closely resembled this structure.


A little over a decade has passed and the situation with snow leopard appears to be deplorable. The snow leopard has disappeared on over 80 percent of the aforementioned territory. The fact that each year, snow leopard traces are registered in areas where they used to live before or that a snow leopard is captured on camera traps only creates the illusion of well-being, as, with very rare exceptions, these are either males or young snow leopards in transit, which can move across vast areas for many years. However, females, which can reproduce and form population nuclei, are only present in three (possibly four or five) areas, numbering not more than one or two females each, including not more than one grown-up female. A population group can be considered viable only if there are three to five mature females.


Our research in Russia, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan (Lukarevsky, Purevsuren, 2011; Lukarevsky, Umetbekov, 2011; Lukarevsky, Poyarkov, 2008) shows that the greatest threat to the snow leopard’s survival is posed by the declining number of individuals and the fragmentation of the species' habitat. Many studies today link the shrinking population and habitat of the snow leopard (as well as of other animal species) to climate change. Our research, however, shows beyond doubt that the main threat to this species is poaching (the destruction both of the snow leopard itself and of its food sources) and the degradation of its habitat, not the climate factor. It is known that the best form of protection is the creation of protected territories. There is an extensive network of protected territories within the boundaries of the snow leopard’s habitat, but nevertheless, year after year, we continue losing them.


Why is this happening? Obviously, all the protected territories only partly cover snow leopard habitats. If a section of its habitat is outside a reserve there is a very serious danger that a snow leopard will end up in a poacher’s trap. The threat is even more real for females, the core of the snow leopard population.


This is why a comprehensive review and assessment of the status of the snow leopard population is a top priority today. This assessment will help to obtain a credible picture of the northern border of the snow leopard habitat. This study should be based on a unified methodology and, as far as possible, should be conducted by a single team of experts. It is essential to create an integrated unified database on the structure and distribution of snow leopard groupings, put all viable groupings on the map, identify threats to each grouping, and provide specific recommendations on the preservation of each of them.


Furthermore, it is important to consider the possibility of restoring lost snow leopard groupings in the natural habitat. One possible means of achieving this could be a programme for the rehabilitation of orphan cubs and possibly also getting zoo snow leopards involved in the programme as a basis for the restoration of lost groupings.


Comprehensive assessments of the status of the snow leopard population in Mongolia were made by a number of researchers in the 1980s and the 1990s and referred to a completely different era of nature management (Bold, Dorjzundui, 1976; Schaller G.B., J.Tserendeleg, G. Amarsana, 1994; McCarthy, 2000). The situation has changed greatly since then. The country’s social and economic system has changed. The number of domestic cattle has grown by over three to five times, and in some areas by over 10 times. The scale of poaching has increased immeasurably.


In 2006, we studied a number of protected territories in western Mongolia (Lukarevsky, Sevger, 2011). In all of these territories, cattle was a significant factor in the snow leopard’s food sources (over 20 percent), which points to a conflict with the local population, and a very significant conflict, at least for some of them. 


In 2013, three other territories were studied (Lukarevsky, Dalanast, 2013). The survey showed that the snow leopard population in the Jargalant national park was stable. However, its status in unprotected territories, like Bambutkhan, arouses serious concerns due to the virtually complete absence of wild ungulates there. Our concern that snow leopard females would be unable to feed their young in winter was confirmed when in late November, a six- or seven-month old snow leopard cub approached a shepherd’s yurt [tent] in search of food. That cub was caught and returned to the wild. I believe that any comment on its future is unnecessary. Cubs in the first year of their life are unable to survive on their own, without assistance from their mother. We can assume that no fewer than two or three or possibly four or five snow leopard litters die each year in Mongolia due to a shortage of food.


In this context, the idea of a project for the rehabilitation of orphan cubs removed from the wild is noteworthy. We believe that specialised compounds and rehabilitation centres for snow leopard cubs could be established in Russia and Mongolia. As they reach a certain age, the animals could be used to restore snow leopard populations. In an optimistic forecast, all gaps in the snow leopard habitat could be closed in four to five years – naturally, provided that territorial protection issues on the local level are appropriately dealt with.