Are Snow Leopards Returning To Mount Everest?
Rare and elusive, snow leopards hide away in rugged and remote mountainous terrain in Central Asia. Most comfortable at high altitude, these grey cats are often termed 'Ghost Cats' by locals who know all to well how difficult the big cats are to spot.
Sadly however, their numbers are plummeting and according to the global Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) there are only around 4,000 of these beautiful cats left in the wild. Unfortunately, snow leopards have a tendency to eat livestock and this has caused a number of human conflicts over the years with many farmers actually trapping and killing the cats. The leopards are also killed for their beautiful pelts and for certain body parts that are used in local medicine.
In recent years strong anti-poaching schemes have been enacted that provide hefty penalties for poachers. These include prison sentences in Nepal and large fines in the U.S. There has also been an effort by local conservation groups to help farmers build more secure livestock pens to combat the threat from the snow leopards.
These efforts have certainly paid off in the Everest Region as cat numbers seem to be on the increase. The first snow leopards recorded on Mount Everest in recent decades was in 2005 when a researcher photographed several of the elusive cats. Several other leopard tracks were also found which confirmed the cat's reappearance in the area. In 2009, local Tibetan farmers captured and then released a snow leopard. Since then there have been numerous sightings of the 'ghost of the mountains' and, just this week, a video was released showing two snow leopards examining a hidden camera.
The video, which was captured by Swiss-based World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) was released to coincide with a new report by the WWF, which highlights how melting ice is threatening to shrink the habitat of the snow leopard. The report stated that unless climate change could be checked, more than a third of the leopard's habitat could vanish.
In the last 16 years, there has been a 20% decrease in the big cats population. As glaciers continue to melt, snowpacks shrink, high mountain deserts become more arid and, as expanding high elevation forests thwart runoff, the timing and amount of water flow downstream will be threatened. As the snow from the glaciers recedes, farmers and shepherds will inevitably start exploiting the newly available land higher up in the mountains, which will further shrink the snow leopards habitat, and thereby threaten the creatures with imminent death either by starvation or a bullet by the farmers trying to protect their assets. The WWF believe that climate change along with the poaching crisis could push the species over the brink.
"Snow leopards won't survive for long unless we tackle climate change alongside other threats such as poaching, retaliatory killings by herders, declining prey species, and poorly planned development"
The WWF says it will continue to do what it can by monitoring the species with cameras and satellite collars, however, they say it is up to local authorities to do their bit also.
Gao Yufang, executive director of the Everest Snow Leopard Conservation Center in the Tibet autonomous region, said, "We require not only scientific investigations, but more interdisciplinary research to understand the social and policy underpinnings of snow leopard conservation".
So whilst the Everest Region is seeing an upsurge in snow leopard population, the species in general is facing a serious crisis. Further research by the WWF and local organisations will help to understand more about the leopard's prey, habitat and interaction with local people, which in turn, should enable better protection acts in the future.