Chapter 3 Threats to Snow Leopards, their Prey and Ecosystems

3.1. Introduction

A sound understanding of the threats affecting the persistence of snow leopard, its prey and habitat is critical to achieving conservation success. The original SLSS threat analysis was updated first by reviewing and revising the original list of threats, resulting in a list of 32 threats and constraints. These were then grouped into four categories (Habitat and Prey; Direct Killing; Policy and Awareness; and Other Issues).

In tandem with the Global Snow Leopard Forum (GSLF) and Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), each threat was assessed and prioritized in each of the 12 snow leopard range countries, according to a modified version of the Threats Reduction Assessment (TRA) protocol of Salafsky and Margoluis (1999). One SLN member and one expert from each country were identified to lead the ranking process, in consultation with other country experts. Each of the 32 listed threats was evaluated for three factors (Area, Intensity and Urgency), using a scale of 1-5, where 1 indicates no/low threat and 5 a severe threat).

Area indicates how widespread the threat is across snow leopard range within a country (a value of 1 indicates an extremely limited areal extent, while a value of 5 denotes that the threat occurs across most or all of snow leopard range within the country).

Intensity is a measure of the severity of impact or destruction caused by a particular threat. Within the overall area, will it completely destroy the habitat(s) or will it cause only minor change? Threats with the least negative impacts are given a value of 1, while those judged most destructive are given a value of 5.

Urgency assesses the immediacy of each threat. Thus, those that may imminently arise or are already occurring (i.e. they are very time sensitive) are given a high ranking compared to threats not presently considered serious or which might arise at some time in the future. The latter are given a low value since implementing remedial measures are less urgent.

Total scores were categorized as Low (1-5); Medium (6-10); and High (11-15). The assessment results by country, along with a mean rangewide score, are shown in Appendix 2.

It is clear from this that there is considerable variation in the impact of individual threats among countries, reflecting different circumstances. Even within a single country, threat levels may vary, often widely, between different regions. This is especially the case in in large countries like China or Mongolia where snow leopard habitat is extensive and split across different regions.

It is also difficult to reflect a full national consensus in this type of assessment exercise unless a wide range of opinion is consulted, reviewed and discussed. Such an extensive consultation was not practical during the preparation phase of the GSLEP and some individual threat scores shown in the table are open to debate and are not all aligned with the national documents (NSLEP) that were prepared later as part of the same process. It is especially difficult to reach sufficient consensus for ranking threats in range states with diverse habitats or variable socio-economic conditions.

A review of the 12 NSLEPs, the results shown in the threats table, and the threat assessment from the original (2003) version of SLSS indicates clearly that the main ongoing threats fall into three broad areas: 1) competition with livestock, habitat degradation and declines in prey; 2) depredation by snow leopards on livestock and retaliatory killing; 3) illegal trade.  Two major new threats have emerged since 2003: climate change and mining, large scale infrastructure and barriers such as roads or fenced railway lines. All five of these issues are discussed in more detail in Chapters 4-8, respectively.

A further set of threats regarded as less severe at range-wide level, or more localized, are described below.

3.2. Lack of awareness among local people and policymakers

Lack of awareness was ranked as High in 6 countries and Medium in 6 for local people and as High in 7 countries for policy makers. There is a significant lack of awareness and understanding of the plight of the snow leopard; the value of snow leopards, prey, and habitat; and the local and regional consequences of the on-going degradation of its ecosystems. This is true at all levels of society within and outside the snow leopard range countries, from local people to leaders of governments and from the private sector to the general public. Globally, snow leopards are less well-known than other charismatic species, such as tigers and elephants; as a result, less funding has been available for snow leopard conservation.

3.3. Lack of institutional capacity

Rated as High or Medium in 11 out of 12 countries. All of the snow leopard range countries report they have insufficient numbers of trained conservation practitioners at all levels, from frontline PA staff to game managers and wildlife law enforcement personnel to research scientists. Moreover, and even where conservation staff levels may be adequate, such as in some scientific institutions, low funding limits their effectiveness. In particular, range countries lack people trained to address the needs of communities and develop community programs. In many range countries, conservation-related laws, policies, and institutions are weak as well. In large part, this is due to insufficient country budgets for snow leopard conservation and for conservation in general, given most range countries area developing nations and some are extremely poor. Donor funding is generally time-limited and insufficient to scale-up successful practices. Most of the range countries need greater financial and technical support from the international community for successful snow leopard conservation.

3.4. Secondary trapping and poisoning:

Rated High in Russia and Medium overall. Steel traps set for wolves Canis lupus and snares (set e.g. for musk deer Moschus spp.) may also catch snow leopards, even if these are not the intended targets.

3.5. Disease

Rated Low overall, Medium in China and India, High in Pakistan, and absent in Russia. Extremely few cases of wild snow leopard mortality due to disease have been reported in the literature and it is difficult to evaluate the potential significance of this threat. Zoo animals are reported to have been affected by common feline viruses (FIV or Immunodeficiency Virus Infection and Papillomaviruses) and congenital abnormalities, including multiple ocular coloboma and neurodegenerative disorders. In 2011, four snow leopards, were found dead in the South Gobi, and mortality was recorded as possibly due to disease, but this has not been confirmed. In India and Pakistan, outbreaks of scabies mange caused by mites in blue sheep and other prey have been reported, in some cases resulting in significant local mortality (Dagleish et al. 2007). Severe outbreaks of scabies, foot-and-mouth, or other diseases among major prey species could impact locally on snow leopard populations.

3.6. Feral dogs attacking Snow Leopards and prey

This was a low threat overall. There are very few, if any, documented cases of feral dogs killing snow leopards, but this may be a localized problem for some prey populations. However, increasing feral dog populations are a potential human health hazard, economic hazard due to livestock depredation, and a potential threat for biodiversity.

3.7. Other threats

War and related military activities: A Low threat overall but, rated Medium in five countries. Although direct effects on snow leopards have not been demonstrated, but it is assumed that the increase in high-powered weapons coupled with the collapse of both government and local community management systems, leads to increases in many of the other threats to snow leopards (e.g. direct poaching, loss of prey species).

Potential legal hunting of Snow Leopards: A proposal to allow limited trophy hunting of snow leopards in Mongolia to raise funds for conservation was made at the 5th International Snow Leopard Symposium (O’Gara 1988). The subject was further discussed by Shackleton (2001) and Jackson (2004) when members of a hunting conservancy in Pakistan argued that it would raise a large sum for conservation and simultaneously reduce predation on markhor (a high-value trophy species) and livestock. A trophy hunting fee up to $150,000 was suggested. More recently, a proposal was put forward in Mongolia to allow hunting of a small number of snow leopards ‘for scientific purposes’ that was widely regarded as a possible back-door to sale of licences for hunting. This proposal was rejected by the government of Mongolia following interventions from national and international NGOs, including SLN and SLT. In order to carry any such initiative forward, an exemption from CITES would be needed to export/import a snow leopard skin and this would likely be difficult to obtain. Any proposed legal hunting of snow leopards would be no doubt be highly controversial. As Shackleton (2001) observed: “..allowing even one hunt for a snow leopard would be strongly rejected by some members of the international conservation community, despite the fact that illegal killing of snow leopards will continue”.

Traditional hunting and collection for zoos and museums: Both factors were rated low and are no longer relevant due to legal restrictions.

References

Dagleish et al. (2007). Fatal Sarcoptes scabiei infection of blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) in Pakistan. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 43(3), 512-7.

Jackson, R. (2004). Pakistan’s Community-based trophy hunting programs and their relationship to Snow Leopard conservation. Snow Leopard Conservancy, Sonoma, CA. 8 pp.

O’Gara, B.W. (1988). Snow leopards and sport hunting in the Mongolian People’s Republic. Pp.215-226 in H. Freeman, (Ed). Proceedings of the Fifth International Snow Leopard Symposium. International Snow Leopard Trust, Seattle, and Wildlife Trust of India, Dehra Dun.

Shackleton, D.M. (2001). A review of community-based trophy hunting programs in Pakistan. Report prepared for Mountain Areas Conservancy Project, IUCN-Pakistan and National Council for the Conservation of Wildlife, Ministry of Environment, Local Government and Rural Development, Pakistan. 59 pp. (Available from: http://www.macp-pk.org/docs/trophyhunting_review.pdf)