Protecting rare snow leopards from climate change in the Himalayas
16 July 2012
A new WWF study shows that climate change is an increasing threat for already-endangered snow leopards in the eastern Himalayas - making it harder for them to live, breed and hunt. The science shows that if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising steadily, 30% of snow leopard habitat may be lost as the treeline shifts upwards.
Snow leopards are an endangered species - it’s estimated that only 4,000-6,500 individuals may be left in the wild, sparsely distributed in the mountains of northern and central Asia, including part of the Himalaya range.
In the Himalayas snow leopards live in high alpine areas, above the treeline and generally below 5,000 meters, where they are able to stealthily track their prey.
According to our new study, changing conditions in the Himalayas will likely result in forests moving up into alpine areas, the snow leopards’ preferred habitat.
WWF scientist Jessica Forrest, one of the study’s authors, points out: “We know snow leopards rarely venture into forested areas, and there’s a limit to how high these animals can ascend (because of lower oxygen levels at altitude).
"If the treeline shifts upward, as our research predicts, we’re looking at the snow leopard being faced with diminishing options.”
The study used both computer-modelling and on-the-ground tracking to predict the impacts of various warming scenarios on the Himalayan portion of the snow leopard range.
Warming at high elevations in the Himalayas is happening faster than the global average. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects temperatures there to increase by 3-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, accompanied by an increase in annual rainfall.
Researchers identified areas that are likely to cope best with the effects of climate change, which could provide possible habitat for snow leopards. Many of these areas span national boundaries, showing the importance of transboundary cooperation to protect this rare species.
The study also emphasises the need to minimise threats like illegal hunting, human-wildlife conflict, and overgrazing of livestock in snow leopard habitat.
The study’s co-author, snow leopard expert Dr Rinjan Shrestha, says: “Loss of alpine habitat has the potential to bring snow leopards closer to human activities like livestock grazing. As the leopards’ natural prey decline, they could begin preying more heavily on livestock, resulting in increased retaliatory killings.”
The study recommends monitoring the impacts of climate change as they evolve, and adapting management strategies accordingly.
With your support we can help protect the snow leopard and its habitat for future generations.
Read the new study in full
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