Chapter 1 Introduction

1.1. The Snow Leopard Panthera uncia

The iconic snow leopard is the least known of the ‘big cats’ due to its elusive nature, secretive habits and the remote and challenging terrain it inhabits. As an apex predator, its survival depends on healthy populations of mountain ungulates, the major prey; these in turn are dependent on the availability of good-quality rangeland minimally degraded by concurrent use from livestock and humans. The snow leopard has a large home range size, so viable populations can only be secured across large landscapes. The snow leopard therefore represents the ideal flagship and umbrella species for the mountain ecosystems of Asia.

Snow leopards share their range with pastoral communities who also require healthy rangelands to sustain their livestock and livelihoods. Moreover, these high altitude mountains and plateaus provide invaluable ecosystem services through carbon storage in peat lands and grasslands, and serve as Asia’s ‘water towers’, providing fresh water for hundreds of millions of people living downstream in Central, East and South Asia.

1.2. The Snow Leopard Survival Strategy (SLSS)

SLSSS was developed to summarize current knowledge on the distribution, status and biology of the snow leopard, to consolidate the knowledge of snow leopard researchers and conservationists worldwide, to identify the key threats to their survival, review the existing state of research and conservation programs, and identify priorities for action.

The specific goals of SLSS are to:

•  Assess and prioritize threats to snow leopard across their range.

•  Define and prioritize appropriate conservation, education, and policy measures to alleviate threats.

•  Prioritize topics for snow leopard research and identify viable and preferred research methods.

The Snow Leopard Trust initiated the SLSS process in February 2001 with a survey of specialists. The survey results were made available on a website and discussed via an email group. This stage was followed by the Snow Leopard Survival Summit, held in Seattle, USA, 21-26 May 2002, and attended by 58 specialists, including representatives from the range states, to discuss and refine the Strategy. The end product was the original version of SLSS (McCarthy & Chapron 2003). The Summit also established the Snow Leopard Network (SLN) a global alliance of more than 500 professionals and nearly 50 institutions involved in snow leopard conservation. SLN later produced a summary and partially revised version (Mallon 2007) in English, Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. All earlier versions are available on the SLN website (www.snowleopardnetwork.org).

Since then, many conservation programs have been initiated, field surveys have expanded across snow leopard range, new protected areas have been established, and major advances in research technology have occurred. Among these are great improvements in camera trap technology, GPS satellite collars, and vastly more refined techniques of genetic analysis that allow the identification of individual snow leopards from fecal DNA. These have generated a large amount of new information and have facilitated research as well as conservation and management. However, the conservation of the snow leopard, its prey and habitat is contingent upon the degree to which such information is shared, reviewed or constructively evaluated and advanced, along with sufficient human and financial resources for advancing our understanding of the species’ ecology and conservation priorities.

At the same time, the pace of rural development has increased, opening up previously remote parts of snow leopard range; livestock grazing has expanded and intensified, and new factors have emerged that may threaten the future of snow leopards and their habitat, notably increased resource exploitation and climate change – all of which have created new challenges for snow leopard conservation.

This was therefore deemed the appropriate time for SLN to update SLSS. The period of updating coincided with the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), a new initiative launched in 2012 by President Alamazbek Atambaev and the government of the Kyrgyz Republic and modelled on the Global Tiger Initiative. The GSLEP seeks to bring together governments of snow leopard range countries to collectively recognize the threats to snow leopards and commit to coordinated national and international action. The GSLEP’s Goal is to identify and secure 20 snow leopard landscapes by the year 2020. The foundation of the process is a set of 12 National Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Priorities (NSLEP) developed by each range country government. For further details, including access to the global and national plans released at the Summit Workshop in Bishkek in October 2013, see http://en.akilibirs.com.

The GSLEP and revised SLSS have been developed in parallel and the two products are intended to be complementary, with GSLEP organized around a policy-level and government-focused agenda and SLSS a wider, more technical document targeting researchers, conservationists and wildlife or protected area managers in the government and public sectors. There is naturally some overlap in thematic content, since several individual and institutional members of SLN also contributed to the development of the GSLEP along with providing input and initial reviews of the country-based NSLEPs.

SLSS must remain on top of all the rapid developments so that the conservation community is equipped with the information it needs to respond to ongoing changes in a manner that assures the continued conservation of snow leopards, their prey and habitat. The large volume of new information available and speed with which it is distributed on new media soon render any static document outdated and waiting for 10-year updates is impractical.

It is with this critical need in mind that the 2014 version of SLSS is presented as an online resource and as a “living” document so that sections or chapters can be updated quickly in response to new information and syntheses, ensuring that it remains relevant and a valued resource.