Chapter 2 Review of Current Status

2.1. Introduction

2.1.1 Taxonomy

The snow leopard Panthera uncia Schreber (1776) is a member of the family Felidae, subfamily Pantherinae (Nowak and Paradiso 1983). The snow leopard’s vocal fold lacks a thick pad of fibro-elastic tissue so it cannot ‘roar’ like the other big cats and was formerly placed alone in a separate genus Uncia (Pocock 1917, Hemmer 1972, Peters 1980, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). Recent phylogenetic analyses place the snow leopard within the genus Panthera, being most closely related to the tiger (Panthera tigris) with the divergence time estimated to be 2 million years (Johnson et al. 2006). Two subspecies were described by Stroganov (1962) but are not generally recognized. Ongoing genetic analysis may clarify whether significant intraspecific variation in snow leopards is present.
As in other Pantherinae, the diploid chromosome number in snow leopards is 38 and the fundamental number is 36. There are 17 metacentric and 2 acrocentric chromosomes (Soderlund et al. 1980). The karyotypic banding pattern is almost identical to that of other Pantherinae (Gripenberg et al. 1982). There is virtually no fossil record of snow leopards, the only positive identifications being upper Pleistocene remains from Altai caves (Hemmer 1972).

2.1.2 Common names

Snow leopard, ounce (English); léopard des neiges (French); Schneeleopard, (German); pantera de las nieves (Spanish); snezhniy bars (Russian); xue bao (Chinese); palang-i-barfy (Dari); bharal he, barfani chita (Hindi, Urdu); shan (Ladakhi); hi un chituwa (Nepali); ilbirs, akilbirs (Kyrgyz) irbis (Kazakh), irvis (Mongolian); sah, sarken (Tibetan); chen (Bhutanese), pes (Wakhi), palang (Pamiri), babri barfi (Tajik).

2.1.2 Description

Adult male snow leopards weigh 37–55 kg and females 35–42 kg; they have a shoulder height of c. 60 cm, head-body length of 1-1.3 m, and tail 0.8-1 m (Hemmer 1972, Johansson et al. 2013). With its smoky-grey pelage tinged with yellow and patterned with dark grey, open rosettes and black spots, the snow leopard is especially well camouflaged for life among bare rocks or patchy snow. It has a well-developed chest, short forelimbs with sizeable paws, strong hind limbs, all adaptations for traversing steep terrain. Adaptations for cold include an enlarged nasal cavity, long body hair with dense, woolly under-fur (belly fur up to 12 cm in length). The long, thick tail aids balance and can be wrapped around the body for added warmth (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). Snow leopards are well known for the ability to leap significant linear or vertical distances.

2.1.3. IUCN Red List Status

Snow leopards have been classified as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 1988, with the most recent assessment in 2008 (Jackson et al. 2008). The species is currently being reassessed for the next period (2015-2020).

2.2. Distribution

The range of the snow leopard extends from the Himalaya in the south, across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the mountains of Central Asia to the mountains of southern Siberia in the north. It occurs in the Altay, Sayan, Tien Shan, Kunlun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayan ranges and in smaller isolated mountains in the Gobi region. It occurs in 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A small area of potential range occurs in northern Myanmar but recent snow leopard presence has not been confirmed.

Figure 2.1 Range Map

range map

Figure 2.1 The potential range of the snow leopard. The range depicted includes some areas of less habitat (notably across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau where much terrain is level or undulating). In some places, snow leopards may have been extirpated, while other sites may not have been surveyed due to their inaccessibility. In others, long intervals may have passed since surveys were undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, much of the snow leopard’s distribution is located along contentious international borders, adding to the difficulty of reliably establishing the species’ current status and distribution. Depicting the current distribution of the snow leopard at a fine scale is therefore not straightforward. These factors partly explain the wide range in estimates of global range size, varying from 1.2 million to over 3 million km2 (Table 2.1).

Modeling of snow leopard distribution as has been done in the Sanjiangyuan region of China (Li et. al. 2013) using field data and predictive distribution mapping based on remotely-sensed data along with relatively large scale environmental parameters (e.g. using digital terrain models to derive landform ruggedness indices) is needed across the snow leopard’s range.

Table 2.1. Estimates of snow leopard range size

Estimate (km2)

Source

1,230,000

Fox (1989)

1,835,000

Fox (1994)

3,024,728

Hunter & Jackson (1997

Confirmed: 1,003,608

Beijing (2008)

Probable: 219,489

Beijing (2008)

Possible: 1,535,116

Beijing (2008)

Total: 2,758,213

Beijing (2008)

1,200,000-1,600,000

Jackson et al. (2010)

1,776,000

GSLEP (2013)

2.3. Population

The global population of the snow leopard was estimated at 4080–6590 in the 2003 version of SLSS, between 3920–6390 by GSLEP (2013), and is suggested to lie between 4500–7500 by Jackson et al. (2010) who noted that current knowledge was inadequate to generate a reliable figure. There are several difficulties to overcome in making reliable estimates of snow leopard population size. The species’ secretive nature, generally low density, and remote terrain result in low detection rates and small sample sizes which make extrapolations problematic.

Many population estimates have been produced for specific sites, regions or countries, Many of these are derived from field sign encounter rates, such as the number of tracks, feces or scrapes found, or based on ‘expert opinion’ or general intuition. Thus, most of these estimates contain a high degree of subjectivity and the methodologies applied are unsuited to producing reliable figures and should be regarded as ‘guesstimates’ at best.

Improved technology and analytical techniques (e.g. camera trapping, GPS collaring, fecal DNA analysis, and occupancy modelling) are beginning to address this problem. For further details see Chapter 12 Estimating Snow Leopard and Prey Populations and Monitoring Trends. Recent and ongoing studies using these techniques have produced density estimates varying from 0.15 to 8.49/100 km2 (Appendix 1). However, most of the studies so far have been conducted over rather small areas, sometimes smaller than the home range of a single snow leopard, rendering the information inadequate to make population and density inferences over larger areas. In addition, estimates derived from modeling such as Habitat Suitability Index (HSI) remain speculative, with an urgent need for field studies correlating indices like HSI and occupancy, with areas of known snow leopard density derived from intensive telemetry, remote camera surveys and fecal genotyping studies.

2.4. Country summaries

The following are summarized from the information provided in each country’s National Snow Leopard and Ecosystems Priorities (NSLEP) profile compiled for the GSLEP in 2013, to ensure that the two documents are aligned, and supplemented with recent reports where available. Only the most recent population estimates have been included. Full details of earlier site estimates are provided in the 2003 version of SLSS – available online here.

A full list of protected areas (PAs) harboring snow leopards is in Appendix 3.

2.4.1 Afghanistan

Snow leopards occur in Badakhshan Province in the north-east and there are local reports from Nuristan and Laghman provinces (Habibi 2004). Earlier reports of occurrence in the Central Hindu Kush have not been confirmed. Most of the recent information comes from Wakhan District of Badakhshan. Since 2009, the National Environmental Protection Agency and Wildlife Conservation Society have obtained over 1300 camera trap images at 20 locations in Wakhan (Simms et al. 2011) and in 2012, three snow leopards were equipped with satellite collars (Simms et al. 2013). The whole of Wakhan District was declared a National Park in April 2014, covering an area of more than 10,000 km2, and encompassing the Big Pamir Wildlife Reserve (576 km²) and Teggermansu (Little Pamir) Wildlife Reserve (248 km²).

2.4.2 Bhutan

There is an estimated c. 10,000 km2 of potential range, mainly across the north of the country and a small area of the east. Snow leopard presence has been confirmed in Toorsa Strict Nature Reserve, Jigme Dorje National Park, and Wangchuk Centennial Park. Protected areas with potential habitat are Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary, Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park and Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary. Based on camera trapping, the total snow leopard population is estimated at 100-200. Shrestha et al. (2013) reported a density of 2.39 snow leopards per 100 km² (95% CI 2.24-2.49) in 797 km² of the upper Chamkar Chu region (27°51’N, 90°39′E) of Wangchuk Centennial Park.

2.4.3 China

Snow leopards occur in provinces or autonomous regions (Qinghai, Tibet, and Xinjiang, but also in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, and Yunnan. They occur in the mountains chains of Pamir, Kunlun, Altun, Tien Shan, Altai and Qilian and on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Their range in China covers c. 1.1 million km2, over 60% of the global total and the population is estimated at 2000-2500. China has established 26 nature reserves in snow leopard range, covering about 600,000 km2, more than half of the total area.

A very large network of protected areas (covering in excess of 478,000 km²) is located on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau: this consists of Chang Tang Reserve, including the Memar addition, (300,000 km²) in Tibet; Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve (152,000 km²), and Kekexili Nature Reserve (45,500 km²) in Qinghai; and Arjin Shan Reserve (45,000 km²) in Xinjiang, with an addition of 23,000 km² along the central Kun Lun Range, as well as Xinjiang and Siling Reserve in Tibet’s Xainza County. However, these reserves, with the exception of Sanjiangyuan, have been reported to harbor relatively few snow leopards, because of unfavorable terrain, sporadic and generally low blue sheep numbers, or the presence of habitat rendered marginal by the high base altitude of the northwestern portions of the Tibetan Plateau (Schaller 1998). Li et al. (2013) reported up to 89,602 km2 of suitable snow leopard habitat in the Sanjiangyuan region.

Gansu Province: Present in the Qilian Shan range along the border with Qinghai and in the Die Shan along the border with Sichuan. Snow leopards have been extirpated from the Mazong Shan and the other outlying ranges along the Gansu-Inner Mongolia boundary (Wang and Schaller 1996). The Qilian Shan National Nature Reserve, (>20,000 km²) is thought to have shown a recovery in the population of blue sheep and snow leopards. Yanchiwan Reserve (5,000 km²) also contains a population of snow leopards (Schaller et al. 1988b).

Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region: According to Schaller (1998), snow leopards once occupied most of the large desert ranges on the Inner Mongolia-Ningxia border, including the Dongda Shan, Yabrai Shan, Ulan Shan, Daqing Shan, Helan Shan, and Longshou Shan on the Inner Mongolia-Gansu border. By the late 1990s, the species was believed to be on the verge of extinction in Inner Mongolia, except for a few animals that may persist in the Arqitu area of the Lang Shan, and transients are occasionally killed along the border with Mongolia (Wang and Schaller 1996). A snow leopard was photographed in the border area in January 2013. These mountain ranges likely served as one of several important linkages connecting southern and northern (Mongolia-Russian) snow leopard populations.

Qinghai Province: Schaller et al. (1988b) estimated the total population at about 650 snow leopards within an occupied range of some 65,000 km² which amounts to about 9% of the total area of Qinghai. Their range includes the Arjin Shan (bordering Xinjiang), the Danghe Nanshan, Shule Nanshan, and Qilian Shan on the border with Gansu Province, and the Kunlun Shan which bisects Qinghai and terminates in the Anyemaqen Shan, along with a series of small massifs on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Within the latter area Schaller et al. (1998) identified three “hotspots” (North Zadoi, South Zadoi, and Yushu), where density was estimated at about one snow leopard per 25-35 km². Abundant sign was also noted in parts of eastern Anyemaqen and the Shule Nanshan. The core areas of Sanjiangyuan Reserve include an estimated 7,674 km² of snow leopard habitat, while an additional 8,342 km² is estimated to be protected by the region’s Buddhist Monasteries (Li et al. 2013). Li (2012) reported a population density of 3.1 snow leopards per 100 km² in Suojia region of Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve.

Sichuan Province: Liao and Tan (1988) listed 10 counties where snow leopard have been reported, including Yaan, Baoxing, Jinchaun, Xiaojin, along with Aba, Garze, Dege and Batang. Its presence has been confirmed in select Giant Panda Reserves such as in Wolong and it is present in low numbers in various areas above the timberline (Schaller 1998). Distribution and status in Sichuan Province are poorly understood, and field surveys are needed to establish the current distribution.

Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR): Snow leopards occur sporadically across the entire TAR, with more or less continuous distribution along the northern slopes of the Himalaya and the larger mountain ranges which bisect the Tibetan Plateau, and also sporadically on smaller mountains. Surveys by Schaller (1998) indicated that snow leopards were scarce in the Gandise and Nyainqentangla ranges, and rare and localized in the vast Chang Tang Reserve, which he attributed to a paucity of blue sheep as well as the absence of suitable habitats. Despite wide-ranging surveys across much of north-western Tibet, Schaller rarely encountered snow leopard signs. A survey of over 40,000 km² area south of Lhasa along the Bhutan border indicated that snow leopards had been virtually exterminated in the previous decade. There are high populations of blue sheep, the main prey species, in the southern parts of Chang Tang, including Shenzha, Southern Nyima, and Southern Tsonyi counties, which also have limestone cliff habitats. Extensive snow leopard sign was recorded in the limestone hills both north and south of Seling Lake, suggesting a potential improvement in conservation status as a result of greater compliance with wildlife laws (John Farrington, unpubl. data).

Jackson (1994a) reported up to 100 snow leopards in the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve 33,910 km² area along the main Himalaya and Nepalese border and centered on Mt. Everest. Snow leopard status and habitat in Tibet urgently needs to be delineated. Areas with the highest priority for status surveys are the Nayainqentanglha, Taniantaweng and Ningjing Shan mountains in eastern and south-eastern Tibet, and along with western Nepal, the mountains bordering Uttarakhand in India, and the Nganlang Kangri mountains bordering Ladakh.

Xinjiang Autonomous Region: Schaller et al. (1988a) estimated that there were about 750 snow leopards in 170,000 km² of suitable habitat in Xinjiang. Snow leopards are found in the Tien Shan mountains close to the Mongolian border (Nan Shan and Karlik Shan); along the Mongolian-China border in the Altay, Baytik and Khavtag Shan complexes, in the Jungarian Alatau (along the Kazakhstan border), the Arjin Shan and Kun Lun range along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the Pamirs along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, and the Karakorum mountains along the Pakistan border. Twenty protected areas in Xinjiang have snow leopards (Ma et al. 2013). These include Taxkorgan Reserve (14,000 km²) Aerjin Shan or Arjin Mountains (45,120 km²), and Tumor Feng Reserve (100 km²).

Yunnan Province: Potential habitat is limited to a small area in the Hengduan Shan in north-west Yunnan near the borders with the Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan and Myanmar. Snow leopard was reported there by Ji (1999). Details of status and distribution are lacking, and field surveys are needed to confirm their current presence.

2.4.4 India     

Snow leopards occur in the Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan areas of five states in northern India. The total range is estimated to cover 126,842 km2, in two landscapes lying west and east of Nepal, respectively. In the west in Jammu & Kashmir (76,601 km2), Himachal Pradesh (28,843 km2), Uttarakhand (14,271 km2); and in the east, Sikkim (2,390 km2) and Arunachal Pradesh (4,736 km2). They are found principally in the subalpine and alpine zones above c. 3,200 m in the west and c. 4,200 m in the east. The Trans-Himalayan areas of Ladakh and Spiti contain extensive areas of contiguous habitat, healthy prey populations and many confirmed records snow leopard presence have been obtained.

A coarse estimate of the population size is 400-700 snow leopards. Snow leopards occur in around 20 protected areas but range all across the landscape. Jackson et al. (2006) reported densities of 8.49/100 km2 and 4.45/100 km2 in the Rumbak area of Hemis NP in 2003 and 2004 respectively, a difference they attributed to variances in camera-trap placement and density. Suryawanshi (2013) reported densities ranging from one 0.5/100km² to 3.4/100km² for five different areas in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. Sharma et al. (unpub. data) suggest an overall density of 0.77/100 km² for the entire Upper Spiti Valley. Sathyakumar et al (unpubl. data) suggest an overall density of 3.88 ± 0.4 individuals/ 100 km2 in Khangchendzonga National Park – Prek Chu Catchment.

2.4.5 Kyrgyz Republic

Widespread in the Tien Shan system (West Tien Shan, Talass Alatau, Kyrgyz range, Central Tien Shan, Inner Tien Shan) and the Pamir-Alai (Alai, Trans-Alai and Turkestan ranges) as well as the Fergana range. The total range is estimated at 54,000 km2. In 2000, Koshkarev and Vyrypaev estimated the number of snow leopards for the whole Kyrgyzstan to be 150-200 individuals, attributing the decline from the earlier estimate of ca 650 to widespread poaching in the 1990s. More recent population estimates are closer to 300-350 individuals for the whole country. Snow leopards occur in eight nature reserves and two national parks: Besh-Aral State Reserve (632 km2), Kara-Bura SR (114 km2), Karatal-Japyryk SR (364 km2), Padyshat SR (305 km2), Kulun-ata SR (274 km2), Naryn SR (910 km2), Sarychat-Ertash SR (720 km2), Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve (238 km2), Ala Archa NP (194 km2) and Kara-Shoroo NP (120 km2). Densities of snow leopards have been reported to range between 0.8-4.7 per 100 km², averaging 2.35 animals per 100 km².

2.4.6 Kazakhstan

Snow leopards occur in the mountains along the southern and eastern borders: in the West Tien Shan (Talass Alatau, Sairam, Ugam and Karzhantau ridges) and the Kyrgyz Alatau (along the border with Kyrgyzstan); the Borohoro, Junggar Alatau, Saur, and Tarbagatai (on the border with China); and Altai (on the border with Mongolia, Russia and China). The range in Kazakhstan is estimated to make up 2.7% of global range and 18,673 km2 lies within protected areas. Zhiryakov & Baidavletov (2002) estimated total numbers at 100-110, including 30-35 in Almaty State Reserve (915 km2). Snow leopards also occur in the Aksu Zhabagly State Reserve (744 km²).

2.4.7. Mongolia

Distributed widely in the west and center in the Mongolian Altai and Gobi Altai (east to about 1030E; Schaller et al. 1994), Harhiraa, Han Hohey and Turgen mountains of the north-west; lower mountains and hills in the Trans-Altai Gobi; and the southern end of the Sayan mountains around Lake Hovsgol. Snow leopard range is estimated at 103,000 km2 and the population at 1000 animals.

McCarthy (2000) provided a detailed range map and assessment of snow leopard status and distribution in Mongolia, based on 328 sign transects across the snow leopard’s entire range. Its presence is reported or suspected from up to 10 aimags. The highest densities are said to occur in the South Gobi, Central Transaltai Gobi, and Northern Altai, with remnant populations in Khangai and possibly Khovsgol. These surveys indicated that snow leopards cross 20-65 km of open steppe in traveling between isolated massifs, more recently confirmed through radio-collaring studies in South Gobi. Bold and Dorzhzunduy (1976) estimated a total snow leopard population of 500-900. They further estimated that there were 190-250 snow leopards in a 6,600 km² area in the South Gobi Province, and calculated a density of 4.4/100 km² in a 1,000 km² area encompassing the Tost Uul Range. Using camera-traps and referring to a ‘known’ population of radio-collared snow leopards within the study area encompassing ca. 1,684 km2, Sharma et al. (2014) estimated the adult snow leopard population at 12-14 individuals over a 4-year period (2009 – 2012). Schaller et al. (1994) found signs suspected to be of at least 10 animals within a 200 km² area of the Burhan Buudai in the Central Altay, an estimated density substantially more than that existing elsewhere.

At least 10 Protected Areas harbor snow leopards (McCarthy 2000), totaling about 20% of the snow leopard’s range within Mongolia. The PAs include the Transaltay Gobi Strictly PA or SPA (consisting of Great Gobi ‘A’ 44,190 km² and ‘B’ 8,810 km²), Khokh Serkh SPA, Otgontenger SPA, Tsagaan Shuvuut SPA, Turgen Uul SPA, Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Conservation Park or NCP – a 12,716 km² area in South Gobi (Reading 1995), Altai Tavaan Bogd NCP, Burhan Buudai Nature Reserve, Alag Khairkhan Nature Reserve and Eej Uul National Monuments, in all totalling 1,110 km² within the snow leopard’s range in the central Transaltai Gobi. Snow leopard sign has not been observed in the 723 km² Khokh Serkh SPA. Gurvan Saikhan and Altai Tavaan Bogd are the two largest PAs totalling roughly 28,080 km². More recently, a Local Protected Area has been established in the Tost Mountains of South Gobi, encompassing snow leopards subject to a long-term study (McCarthy et.al 2010; Sharma et al. 2014).

2.4.8. Nepal

Snow leopards are found along the northern region of the country and the Himalaya range. There are three main complexes: The largest is located in western Nepal, from Tscharka Pass in Shey-Phoksundo National Park to the Api-Nampa Conservation Area (CA) along the Indian border; a central complex, including the Annapurna Conservation Area and Manaslu CA; and a smaller, eastern complex from the Kangchenjunga CA on the India (Sikkim) border through Sagarmatha and Makalu-Barun NP’s to the Gaurishankar CA and Langtang NP. The national Snow Leopard Conservation Action Plan estimates a total habitat of 13,000 km² in Nepal. The population is estimated at 195-416 individuals, based on the relationship between scrape encounter rates and individuals, extrapolated over suitable habitat and cross-verified with predator-prey relationships (Government of Nepal 2012). Population density is estimated at 1.5–3.2 animals/100 km².

The largest populations occur in the west (Mustang, Mugu, Dolpo and Humla districts) of Nepal (Jackson 1979). Based on radio-telemetry, Jackson and Ahlborn (1989) reported a density of at least 5-10 snow leopards per 100 km² in the remote, uninhabited Langu Valley of west Nepal. These are slightly higher than estimates from Manang (north of the Annapurna Range) in the Annapurna Conservation Area (Oli 1995), where blue sheep and livestock biomass was reported to exceed 1,200 kg per km² (Jackson et al. 1994b). Ale et al. (2014) reported a minimum of 3 snow leopards camera-trapped within an area of ca 75 km2.

Snow leopard presence has been confirmed in the following Protected Areas: Langtang National Park, Api Nampa Conservation Area, Gaurishankar Conservation Area, Rara National Park, Khaptad National Park, the Shey-Phoksundo National Park (3,555 km²), Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve (1,325 km²), Annapurna Conservation Area (7,629 km, including the Manang, Nar Phu and Mustang sectors each offering good to excellent snow leopard habitat), Sagarmatha National Park (1,148 km²), Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (2,035 km²), Manaslu Conservation Area (1,663 km², and possibly elevated portions of the 2,233 km² Makalu-Barun National Park and Conservation Area.

The Qomolangma Nature Reserve in Tibet, China, provides a corridor linking the Makalu-Barun, Sagarmatha, Langtang, Manaslu and Annapurna conservation areas, thus offering a potentially vast trans-frontier Protected Area (Singh and Jackson 1999). Based upon a habitat model, Jackson and Ahlborn (1990) concluded that 65% of Nepal’s snow leopard population was located outside of the PA network. Populations of 50 or more individuals might be expected in three Reserves (Shey-Phoksundo, Langtang and Annapurna), but no PA is expected to contain more than 180 animals even assuming mean densities as high as 5 snow leopards per 100 km² as suggested from sign surveys (Jackson and Ahlborn 1989; Fox and Jackson, 2002).

2.4.9. Pakistan

Snow leopards occur in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir mountains of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (Chitral District and northern parts of Swat District); Gilgit-Baltistan province (all seven districts but major strongholds in Hunza-Nagar, Gilgit and Skardu) and Azad Kashmir (presence limited to Neelam District, particularly in Shontar and Gurez valleys). The total area of habitat available is about 80,000 km2 and the population is estimated at 200-300. Over 60% of the range is in Gilgit-Baltistan, mainly in two adjoining PAs: Khunjerab NP and Central Karakoram NP. With the notification of Broghil National Park and Qurumber National Park and other protected areas, the total area under protection rises to over 37,000 km2. With the exception of Khunjerab and Central Karakoram NPs, most reserves are too small to protect more than a very few animals.

Through sign-based occupancy and intensive camera trappings since 2011, the Snow Leopard Foundation has confirmed presence of the species over large landscapes, starting from Gahriat Gol and Chitral Gol in the west to the Karakoram ranges in the east, including Torkho, Laspur, Mastuj and Broghil valleys in Chitral District, and Qurumber, Misgar, Chuparson, Phandar, Khunjerab, Shimshal, Shigar, and Astore valleys and in peripheral valleys of Deosai in Gilgit Baltistan. Though the densities in these areas have not yet been estimated, the highest photo-capture rate of the species was in Shimshal, Khunjerab, and Misgar valleys, where good populations were also reported by Wegge (1988) based on snow leopard signs.

2.4.10. Russian Federation

Russia lies at the northern edge of snow leopard range. They are distributed in the Altai, Tannu-Ola and Sayan mountains. The total area of potential habitat is c. 60,000 km2 but the areas regularly used (relatively less snow cover in winter and adequate prey populations) total only 20,000-30,000 km2, and harbor an estimated 70-90 snow leopards. Five areas harbor a stable population covering 12,000 km2 in total and 50-65 snow leopards. These are: (i) Chikhachev Ridge; (ii) Tsagan-Shibetu ridge, southern Shapshal Range and western Tannu Ola range; (iii) Sayano-Sushensky Biosphere Reserve and its buffer zone; (iv) Sengelen ridge and (v) the Okinsky and Tunkinsky ridges.

Paltsyn et al. (2012) reported that in the Altai, potential snow leopard habitat is located in central, southeastern, and eastern Altai and includes the following mountains and ridges: Terektinsky (eastern), Katunsky, Northern and Southern Chuisky, Aygulaksky, Kuraysky, Abakansky, Kurkure, Chulyshman, Shapshalsky, Chikhachev, Sailyugem, and Tabyn-Bogdo-Ola. The population in Sayano-Sushensky Biosphere Reserve, where camera trapping was started in 2007, has recently been reported by SLN members to have declined due to poaching (A. Subbotin pers. comm.).

2.4.11. Tajikistan

The total habitat of the snow leopard in Tajikistan is reported to be about 85,700 km², which represents 60% of the total territory of the country. Distribution covers the Western and Eastern Pamir, Darvaz, Academy of Sciences, Peter the Great, Vanj, Yazgulem, Rushan, Shakhdara, Pshart, Muzkul, Sarykol, South Alichur, North Alichur, Wakhan and Alay ranges. Snow leopards are also known to occur in the Turkestan, Zeravshan, Hissar, Karategin, Hazratishoh and Vakhsh ranges. They occur in Tajik National Park (26,116 km2), Zorkul State Reserve (SR) (877 km2), Romit SR (161 km2), Dashtijum SR (534 km2), two Natural Parks (Shirkent, Sarikhosor), and eight reserves with regulated natural resource use. Further snow leopards occur in at least five areas managed by local conservancies with a total size of about 2300 km² as well as in several private hunting concessions.

2.4.12. Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is situated at the western end of the species’ range. Snow leopards occur in two areas, separated by the Fergana Valley: the Ugam, Pskem and Chatakal ranges (part of the Western Tien Shan system) and the Gissar, Turkestan, and Zeravshan Ranges in the Pamir-Alai system. The total area is estimated at 10,000 km2 and snow leopard numbers at 10-15 and 20-30 respectively based on sign and sightings. The first camera trapped snow leopards were reported in 2014 in Gissar State Reserve (T. Rosen Michel pers. comm. 2014). The first camera trapped snow leopard was reported recently in 2014. Snow leopards occur in Chatkal State Reserve (two areas 111 km2 and 242 km², separated by a distance of 20 km), Gissar State Reserve (875 km²), Ugam-Chatkal National Park (6683 km²), and Zaamin State Reserve (106 km²). These protected areas cover about 65% of snow leopard range in Uzbekistan.

2.4.13. Myanmar

About 4,730 km2 of potential habitat occurs on the northern border (Hunter and Jackson 1997), most of it within Hkakabo Razi NP (3,885 km2). Snow leopard tracks were reported in the area in the 1930s (Mallon 2003). Blue sheep occur there and local hunters reported sighting and killing of snow leopards (Rabinowitz 2001); they have a local name for it, kangzik, [= snow-leopard in Tibetan]. The presence of snow leopards is deemed unlikely (A. Rabinowitz pers. comm).

2.5. Biology

This section has been summarized from information in a wide range of sources (Hemmer 1972, Schaller 1977, Jackson 1989, Fox 1989, 1994, Heptner & Sludskii 1992, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002, McCarthy & Chapron 2003, Jackson et al. 2010).

2.5.1. Habitat

Snow leopards are closely associated with the alpine and subalpine zones above the tree line. In the Sayan Mountains of Russia and parts of the Tien Shan they may frequent open coniferous or birch (Betula sp.) forest. They generally occur between elevations of 3,000–4,500 m, but are found at lower elevations (900–1,500 m) in northern parts of the range and in the Gobi desert, and may range up to 5,800m in the Himalaya and Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau region. However, in nearly all parts of their range, snow leopards favor steep, rugged terrain, well broken by cliffs, ridges, gullies, and rocky outcrops. They show a strong preference for irregular slopes in excess of 40° and well–defined landform edges, such as ridgelines, bluffs and ravines, along which to travel about their home range. They may migrate to lower elevations during the winter to avoid deep snow and follow movements of their primary prey species.

2.5.2. Prey

Snow leopards are capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight, so that only adult wild camel (Camelus ferus), kiang (Equus kiang), and wild yak (Bos mutus) are herbivores occurring in their range that are excluded as potential prey (Schaller 1998). The main prey consist of medium-sized mountain ungulates, especially bharal or blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), Himalayan or Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), markhor (Capra falconeri), and Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus). Snow leopard distribution coincides closely with the distribution of the first two species, which have mean weights of 55 and 76 kg, respectively. They also reportedly prey on argali (O. ammon), urial (Ovis orientalis or O. vignei), red deer (Cervus elaphus), roe deer (Capreolus pygargus) and musk deer (Moschus spp.). Supplementary prey includes marmots (Marmota spp.), pikas (Ochotona spp.), hares (Lepus spp.), small rodents, and game birds. On one occasion, a snow leopard killed and partially ate a 2-year old brown bear (Ursus arctos) (Heptner & Sludskiy 1972). Several studies have reported snow leopard consuming vegetation and finding scats composed entirely of twigs (Schaller 1977; Mallon 1991; Chundawat & Rawat 1994).

Wild ungulates have been reported to contribute more than 45% and up to 98% of the snow leopard’s diet, with livestock providing as much as 40–70%, though generally more in the order of 15–30% (Schaller et al. 1988a; Oli et al. 1993; Chundawat and Rawat 1994; Jackson 1996; Bagchi and Mishra 2006; Anwar et al. 2011; Shezad et al. 2012; Wegge et al. 2012; Suryawanshi 2013).

Lyngdoh et al. (2014) reviewed the literature on prey preferences across snow leopard range; they identified four distinct physiographic and prey type zones, using cluster analysis that had unique prey assemblages and characteristics. Levin’s index showed the snow leopard had a specialized dietary niche breadth. The main prey consisted of Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), argali (Ovis ammon) and marmots (Marmota spp.). The preferred prey species of snow leopard weighed 55-65 kg.

Diet has traditionally been assessed through microscopic analysis of hair and other remains in feces. However, recent research has shown that visual identification of snow leopard (and other carnivore) scats is unreliable, with 41-59% of scats misidentified (McCarthy et al. 2008; Janecka et al. 2011) and that DNA analysis is needed to confirm the species identification. This may cast doubt on the accuracy of aspects of some earlier studies on diet composition.

Some recent studies have used molecular tools to confirm scat identification. For example, Anwar et al. (2011) found the diet at their study site in Baltistan (Pakistan) to consist of 70% livestock, 28% wild ungulates, and less than 2% small mammals and birds. Shehzad et al. (2012) also reported that 98% of snow leopard scats consisted of ungulate prey, and less than 2% smaller mammals and birds. Similarly, Suryawanshi (2013) reported the snow leopard diet to consist mainly of wild and domestic ungulates (92-94%) with small mammals and birds comprising less than 3.5% in six study sites in India and one in Mongolia. Jumabay-Uulu et al. (2013) and Maheshwari et al. (2010) recorded marmots in 8-9% of the snow leopard scats analyzed from Sarychat-Ertash Reserve, Kyrgyzstan, and the Kargil area, India, respectively. Annual prey requirements are estimated at 20–30 adult ungulates, with radio-tracking indicating a large kill every 10–15 days (Jackson and Ahlborn 1984; Jackson 1996). Unless disturbed, a snow leopard may remain on its kill for up to a week (Fox and Chundawat 1988).

2.5.3. Marking

Snow leopards mark their home ranges mainly with scrapes on the ground and scent marks on overhanging cliffs and boulders (Schaller 1977; Jackson and Ahlborn 1988). It is widely assumed that such marking represents a set of visual olfactory signals to communicate information on the presence of individual snow leopards and, since the frequency of marking intensifies during the mating season, reproductive condition. Favored locations are along ridgelines, beside prominent objects, valley bottoms, cliff bases, gorges, and stream junctions (Mallon 1991; Jackson and Ahlborn 1988). These marks are easily recognized and have been widely used on field surveys, in conjunction with tracks (pugmarks), as evidence of snow leopard presence (see Chapter 14 Estimating Snow Leopard and Prey Populations and Monitoring Trends). However, the prevalence of field signs varies according to locality and they are less frequently encountered in some areas, such as habitats in Bhutan where substrate and sign longevity are adversely affected by high annual rainfall. Li et al. (2014) described a communal sign post used by snow leopards and other species at a site in China, and suggested it’s possible role in inter-species communication and temporal segregation.

2.5.4. Reproduction

Mating occurs between January and mid-March, which is a period of intensified social marking and vocalization (Ahlborn and Jackson 1988). In captivity, oestrous lasts for 2–12 days, with a cycle of 15–39 days (Nowell and Jackson 1996). One to five cubs are born after a gestation period of 93 to 110 days, generally in June or July. Litter size is usually two to three. The largest litter size as yet recorded was seven. Sexual maturity is reached at 2–3 years (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). Dispersal of young animals is said to occur at 18–22 months of age, and sibling groups may remain together briefly at independence (Jackson 1996). This may explain reported sightings of as many as five snow leopards in a group (Hemmer 1972). There is no information on longevity in the wild, but captive snow leopards are known to have survived until 21 years old (Wharton & Freeman 1988).

2.5.5. Home range

Home range size has been reported to vary from 12 to 39 km² in productive habitat in Nepal (Jackson and Ahlborn 1989, based on ground-based radio-tracking) to 500 km² or more in Mongolia with its open terrain and lower ungulate density (McCarthy et al. 2005 in the central Altai range; McCarthy et al. 2010 in Tost Uul mountain; and Munkhtsog and Jackson, unpubl. GPS radio-tracked snow leopard in Baga Bogd mountain). The four telemetry studies to date reveal largely overlapping male and female home ranges, but use of a particular area is usually separated temporally.

In Nepal, 42–60% of the home range locations of four individuals radio-collared occurred within 14–23% of their respective home areas: these commonly used ‘core areas’ intersected the most favorable local topography, habitat, and prey base (Jackson and Ahlborn 1989). Solitary and typically crepuscular, snow leopards remain within a small area for about a week before shifting to another part of their home area. Mountain ridges, cliff edges, and well-defined drainage lines serve as common travel routes and sites for the deposition of signs, including scrapes, scats, and scent marks (Ahlborn and Jackson 1988). Core areas are often used by more than one snow leopard and are marked significantly more frequently than non-core sites, suggesting that such marking may help space individuals and thereby facilitate more efficient use of sparse resources (Jackson and Ahlborn 1989). In Nepal’s rugged habitat, snow leopards moved up to 7 km daily (straight-line distances), but averaged c. 1 km (Jackson and Ahlborn 1989), whereas in Mongolia, their daily movements were considerably greater (about 12 km), with one female covering 28 km in a single day (McCarthy et al. 2005).

Spatial and temporal overlap in snow leopard home ranges was first reported from Nepal (Jackson and Ahlborn 1989), a pattern subsequently confirmed by studies in Mongolia (McCarthy 2000; McCarthy et al. 2010). The level of overlap may vary according to age, sex, reproductive status and relatedness between overlapping individuals. Preliminary results from South Gobi suggest that in case of young males, their ranges seem to overlap with each other and it is likely that they manage to survive within the home ranges of more dominant males for considerable periods (McCarthy et al. 2010). Female ranges, on the other hand, show a high variability though there have also been reports of overlap between individuals.

2.5.6. Demography

There is very little published information on the demography and reproduction of the wild population, with the first results of the ongoing long-term ecological study in Mongolia (Sharma et al. 2014). Based on four years of camera trapping in conjunction with satellite telemetry of 20 individuals, these investigators offer initial information on sex ratios, litter size, inter-birth interval, survivorship, and emigration within a relatively isolated snow leopard population over a four-year period. While seemingly stable, adult sex ratios shifted from being male-biased to female-biased (1.67 to 0.38 males per female) during the study. Adult survival probability was 0.82 (SE+20.08) and that of young was 0.83 (SE+20.15) and 0.77 (SE +20.2) respectively, before and after the age of 2 years. Young snow leopards showed a high probability of temporary emigration and immigration (0.6, SE +20.19 and 0.68, SE +20.32 before and after the age of 2 years) though this was not apparent for the adults (0.02 E+20.07). They concluded that, while the current female-bias in the population and number of cubs born each year appeared adequate to keep this population safe, the vigorous dynamics suggests the situation may change quickly. However, the study site is located at the end of a mountain chain in the semiarid Gobi, and similar long-term studies are needed in other representative habitats to capture variation across snow leopard range.

2.6. Gaps in understanding and research priorities

It is clear from the above that despite many promising recent advances in technology, there remain significant gaps in our understanding of snow leopard biology and ecology.

Obtaining reliable estimates of global, national and local population sizes is the most urgent priority in order to assess population trends and inform conservation actions. Accurate, fine-scale information on current presence is also needed, along with habitat modelling to map distribution. Home range size is another vital parameter and is crucial in determining the optimal size of a landscape to be protected.

Dispersal is essential for preserving the connectivity among snow leopard populations and an important time in a species’ life history: in most felids this is when maximum mortality takes place. New information from satellite-collaring and landscape genetics is expected to lead to better understanding of dispersal distances and patterns and thus highlight key movement corridors.

The importance of different wild prey and livestock in the diet needs further investigation and the interactions between the wild-herbivores livestock is another important topic for research. Attacks by snow leopards on livestock can lead to negative attitudes among local communities. Understanding the biotic and landscape correlates of conflict hotspots is critical for effective management of conflicts between herders and carnivores. For instance, a recent paper by Suryawanshi et al. (2013) questions the assumption that increasing wild prey will necessarily lead to reduced livestock depredation.

Research on identifying livestock depredation causes, socio-economic profiling of herder communities and people’s attitude towards snow leopards are important, and need to be carried out across a cross-section of the ecological and cultural landscapes. It is important to understand the linkage between economic, socio-cultural and ecological factors (such as wild prey-livestock ratios), their role in driving conflict and also how these factors interact in determining the severity of conflict.

Equally important is to develop an understanding of the correlates of human tolerance of snow leopards and other predators, especially the sympatric wolf. There is also emerging conflict over the perceived consumption of forage by wild ungulates, which may be considered detrimental to livestock production, even though surveys show that in most sites currently, livestock consume over 95% of the forage, and wild ungulates consume 5% or less (Berger et al. 2013).

The extent, pattern and factors influencing these interactions between livestock and wild prey populations also need to be better understood. Table 2.3 lists the main research needs identified by SLSS in 2003 and in this update.

Table 2.2: A comparison of the information needs described in the SLSS 2003 with the current SLSS update. The green indicates the research needs that are considered important even now. Yellow indicates the research needs that have not been discussed or highlighted in the current SLSS update.

S No

Research or Information Needs

SLSS 2003

SLSS 2014

Research priority for the next five years

1

Snow leopard migration and dispersal routes

Yes

Yes

Yes

2

Snow leopard population size

Yes

Yes

Yes

3

Snow leopard population trends and factors involved

Yes

Yes

Yes

4

Agents of habitat degradation and relative impacts

Yes

Yes

Yes

5

Economic valuation of snow leopards

Yes

Yes

Yes

6

Snow leopard –prey relationships

Yes

Yes

Yes

7

Livestock depredation rates

Yes

Yes

Yes

8

Livestock depredation causes

Yes

Yes

Yes

9

Snow leopard home range size and habitat use

Yes

Yes

Yes

10

Snow leopard social structure and behavior

Yes

Yes

Yes

11

Snow leopard population genetics

Yes

Yes

Yes

12

Snow leopard food habits

Yes

Yes

No

13

Snow Leopard monitoring techniques development

Yes

Yes

Yes

14

Socio-economic profiling of herder communities

Yes

Yes

Yes

15

Human attitudes to snow leopards

Yes

Yes

Yes

16

Snow leopard distribution and “hot spots”

Yes

Yes

No

17

Prey species distribution and “hot spots”

Yes

Yes

No

18

Prey population baseline and trends

Yes

Yes

Yes

19

Wild ungulate—livestock interactions (competition)

Yes

Yes

No

20

Ungulate disease

Yes

Yes

Yes

21

Snow leopard poaching levels

Yes

Yes

Yes

22

Snow leopard disease

Yes

Yes

Yes

23

Snow Leopard relationships to other predators

Yes

Yes

No

24

Effects of climate change

No

Yes

Yes

25

Livestock and human population status and trends

Yes

Yes

Yes

26

Methods to alleviate impacts of war

Yes

No

No

27

Analysis of existing policies and laws

Yes

No

No

28

PA coverage—extent, presentation of habitats

Yes

No

No

Note: for more recent information and comments on the importance of these topics country-wise, consult the NSLEP documents prepared by the range country governments.

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