How Cashmere Is Threatening the Lives of Snow Leopards

Growing goat herds push big cats out of their habitat.

Snow Leopard In Snow Storm
abzerit / Getty Images

In Mongolia, farmers have cleared more land, making room for larger herds of cashmere goats. As the global demand for cashmere continues to grow, the trade is harming the elusive snow leopard population, a new study finds. 

Mongolia is the second-largest exporter of cashmere after China. The two countries create about 85% of the global supply.

Cashmere is a fiber made from the soft, downy undercoat of goats. It’s popular due to its soft texture and warmth.

The demand for cashmere has increased dramatically in recent years and is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2025. That jump in demand has mirrored an increase in livestock numbers from an estimated 20 million in the 1990s to about 67 million now.

As larger herds of goats take over more land, snow leopards are pushed out of their limited habitat.

Snow leopards are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with their population numbers decreasing. A 2015 report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggested that more than one-third of snow leopard territory might become unviable due to climate change.

“Livestock rearing is the primary livelihood in countries like Mongolia and is an industry that occupies large chunks of land, including within protected areas, despite regulations that are in place,” study coordinator Francesco Rovero, a researcher in the Department of Biology at the University of Florence, tells Treehugger. 

“In our study in the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia, we found that livestock herds encroaching on snow leopard habitat trigger displacement of both this elusive cat and its main prey in the region, the Siberian ibex.”

The Impact of Livestock

Published in the journal Biological Conservation, the study was supported by wild cat conservation organization Panthera.

For the study, researchers collected data from more than 200 camera traps placed between 2015 and 2019. The cameras were located in four areas with varying protection status in the Mongolian Altai Mountains. The research focused on livestock, Siberian ibex, snow leopards, and wolves. Wolves may compete with snow leopards for habitat and prey.

The aim was to detail the effects of goat farming for cashmere wool on some of the key species in the area.

"The goal of our analyzes was to understand if the herds of domestic animals, photographed by more than half of the photo-traps placed, acted as an attraction factor, as an additional source of prey, or repulsion for the two large carnivores of the area, the snow leopard and the wolf, and if they inhibited the presence of the Siberian ibex, the main prey of the snow leopard in these areas,” says first author Marco Salvatori, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florence and  Museum of Sciences of Trento (MUSE).

They found that snow leopards avoid livestock, but wolves appear to be attracted to livestock, which increases conflicts with shepherds. Snow leopards and ibex overlap, indicating a predator-prey relationship.

“These results indicate that despite occasional attacks by snow leopards on livestock, this wild cat prefers to prey on wild ungulates in harsh and steep terrain, mostly avoiding livestock herds. This pattern is most likely due to the risk of retaliatory killings by shepherds, unlike wolves, who are opportunistic predators on livestock,” Rovero says. 

“However, as livestock herds encroach upon the snow leopard’s habitat in protected areas, the species is pushed to progressively more isolated areas and its wild prey are declining due to competition for pastureland from goats and sheep.”

Researchers believe that these factors will likely result in a drop in snow leopard population, which is believed to be between 4,500 and 10,000, according to Panthera.

Goats and the Environment

Goats can be very hard on the environment. They eat all the way to the ground and pull up roots, which can damage the ecosystem. They have sharp, pointed hooves that dig into the soil. All these factors combine to degrade grasslands and can hasten desertification.

Some brands are transparent with sustainability practices. The Sustainable Fibre Alliance is an organization working to ensure responsible cashmere production by minimizing the environmental impact and protecting animal welfare, while looking after herder livelihoods.

Protecting the environment should also preserve snow leopard habitat, say researchers, who have suggestions for keeping the big cat safe.

“Regulations should be enforced, including those that restrict and limit grazing in protected areas. In addition, livestock numbers should be controlled and more sustainable grazing regimes implemented. For example, protection of livestock herds in predator-proof corrals at night has been proven as an excellent mitigation method for conflict between shepherds and predators over livestock,” Rovero says.

“Importantly, local communities must be engaged in any and all conversations regarding conservation of the species, as they are ultimately the ones sharing their backyards with the species and facing the consequences of unsustainable land use.”

View Article Sources
  1. Salvatori, Marco, et al. "Co-Occurrence of Snow Leopard, Wolf and Siberian Ibex Under Livestock Encroachment Into Protected Areas Across the Mongolian Altai." Biological Conservation, vol. 261, 2021, p. 109294., doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109294

  2. "About Cashmere." Sustainable Fibre Alliance.

  3. "Cashmere Clothing Market Worth $3.50 Billion By 2025 | CAGR: 3.96%." Grand View Research, 2019.

  4. study coordinator Francesco Rovero, researcher in the Department of Biology at the University of Florence

  5. McLaughlin, Kathleen. "Exploding Demand for Cashmere Wool is Ruining Mongolia's Grasslands." Science, 2019.

  6. "Snow Leopard."The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2016.

  7. "Fragile Connections." World Wildlife Fund, 2015.

  8. Salvatori, Marco, et al. "Co-Occurrence of Snow Leopard, Wolf and Siberian Ibex Under Livestock Encroachment into Protected Areas Across the Mongolian Altai." Biological Conservation, vol. 261, 2021, p. 109294., doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109294

  9. "Soft Cashmere Is Hard on the Environment." Natural Resource Defense Council, 2011.