Why the Snow Leopard Population Is Decreasing

The elusive big cat faces threats from habitat loss and poaching.

Two snow leopards sit together on a grey rock

Tambako the Jaguar / Getty Images

The elusive snow leopard was listed on the IUCN Red List as endangered in 1986. In 2017, its status changed to vulnerable – one step below endangered. However, the IUCN says the snow leopard's population numbers are still decreasing, and the cat continues to face a high risk of extinction.

Researchers aren’t sure how many snow leopards are left in the world. The IUCN estimates that there are between 2,710 and 3,386 snow leopards, while the Snow Leopard Conservancy calculated in 2010 that there were between 4,500 and 7,500 big cats living in the cold, high mountains of Central and South Asia.

Threats

Nearly all of the main threats to snow leopards come from humans who encroach on their territory. Snow leopards are threatened by habitat loss, poaching, and retaliatory killing when they turn to livestock for prey.

Habitat Loss

The snow leopard lives in a dozen countries in mostly mountainous areas of Central and South Asia. As more people move into the snow leopard’s domain, they build homes, farms, factories, and infrastructure, taking away more of the cat’s habitat. Trees are cut down to make way for pasture for livestock, which removes shelter for both the snow leopard and its prey. 

Poaching

Although poaching is believed to have declined since the late 1990s, the illegal trapping and killing of snow leopards remain a significant threat to the population. A 2106 report published by TRAFFIC, a U.K. group working against wildlife trade, estimates that between 221 and 450 snow leopards have been poached each year since 2008. That’s at least four animals each week. But the authors suggest that the true number of snow leopards that have been killed and sold could be much higher, as poaching in remote areas can go undetected.

Some big cats poaching occurs so that their bones, skin, organs, and other body parts can be used in traditional Chinese medicine practices, reports WWF China. Typically, tigers are the most popular animal for this trade, but snow leopards are used as well.

Decline in Prey

Snow leopards typically hunt wild mountain sheep and wild goats that are also hunted by members of local communities. When humans kill these wild animals, there’s less prey for the snow leopards and it’s harder for them to survive. In some cases, it also forces them to hunt livestock for food.

A snow leopard stalks its prey in green grass
Snow leopards often have to compete with local residents when they hunt wild sheep and goats. Colin Langford / Getty Images

Competition With Livestock

When farmers move into the snow leopard’s habitat, they often use the landscape for grazing land for their animals. This takes the land away from wild goats and sheep, limiting the big cat’s prey and, again, forcing it to seek out domestic animals as food. (Notably, a 2015 study published in Biological Conservation found that livestock grazing isn’t always a threat to the snow leopard population unless the livestock herds become very large.)

Retaliatory Killing

When snow leopards kill livestock like goats, sheep, and horses, the losses for farmers can be catastrophic, points out the Snow Leopard Trust. These farmers sometimes retaliate by killing the big cats. According to the report by TRAFFIC, 55% of snow leopard killings occur in retaliation for attacks on livestock.

Climate Change

Like so many creatures on our planet, snow leopards are feeling the impact of climate change. The Snow Leopard Trust says that temperatures in the big cat’s habitat in the mountains of Central Asia are rising. More than half of the world’s remaining snow leopards live in the Tibetan plateau, which has grown three degrees warmer in the last two decades. Warming affects everything from water to vegetation to the animals in the ecosystem.

A 2012 study by the WWF published in Biological Conservation used computer modeling and tracking data to assess how various climate change scenarios could impact the snow leopard's habitat in the Himalayan Mountains. Researchers concluded that nearly one-third of the animal's habitat in the area could be lost due to a change in the treeline, but enough habitat could be maintained if the area was managed well.

What We Can Do

Many animal conservation groups are working to preserve the snow leopard. The WWF works with communities in the Eastern Himalayas to monitor the snow leopard population. They offer insurance plans to cover livestock deaths in order to dissuade farmers from killing the big cats in retaliation. Similarly, the group works with Mongolian goat-herders to raise awareness about snow leopards and stop retaliatory killings.

Beige and brown snow leopard kitten walking on a log
Many conservation groups are working to preserve the snow leopard population. gnagel / Getty Images

The WWF is also working with TRAFFIC to fight poaching and wildlife trafficking. You can support the WWF’s efforts by spreading awareness, donations, or symbolically adopting a snow leopard. You also can support TRAFFIC through donations. 

The Snow Leopard Trust works in five countries that contain more than 75% of the world’s snow leopard population. The group sponsors research and conservation programs and works with community members, governments, and businesses on how to implement those programs to protect the big cats and their habitats. You can donate, spread awareness, or buy products in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy partners with local communities in Pakistan, Nepal, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Russia, and India for awareness, conservation research and monitoring, and to offer solutions like predator-proof corrals. You can support the conservancy with donations or by symbolically adopting a snow leopard.