Climate change is dramatically shifting the mountain landscape all across the world. The ongoing land degradation coupled with increased melting of glaciers, snow and permafrost has been endangering several wildlife species by destroying their habitats and thus putting many on the brink of extinction. One such species is Snow leopards, the notoriously elusive big cats of the mountains, which not only faces the threat from the dire consequences of climate change and global warming but their number has also been struggling to grow owing to human-induced perils such as poaching and retaliatory killing. What’s more, with their prey growing scarcer day by day, these dwellers of the cold high mountains could soon become a thing of the past.
Native to twelve countries in the north and central Asia, snow leopards (Panthera uncia) or ‘ghosts of the mountains’ prefer the broken terrain of cliffs, ravines and outcrop of the rocks in the cold mountains where only grasses and shrubs grow. In the Himalayas, living in the alpine and sub-alpine region, they have been spotted as high as 1800 feet. Their population has been on the decline for many years and now the number of mature individuals is estimated to be somewhere between 2,710-3,386, as per the Red list of International Union for Conservation of Nature which has declared their status as vulnerable.
Unlike other big cats, snow leopards attacks on humans have been rarely reported. When attacked by humans, they readily run away and in most situations, they can hardly defend themselves. However, as the human settlements continue to encroach on their habitat — primarily because of the growing population and large scale construction and infrastructural development in the area — the livestock often becomes their prey. This leads to retaliatory killings by farmers. Further, snow leopards have been poached for ages for their pelts and other body parts which are used for traditional Chinese medicines. Now a new factor, climate change, has been driving their declining population. The emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the subsequent rising temperature of our planet triggered by the indiscriminate combustion of fossil fuels has accelerated the changes in the mountainous habitats of these cats. The rising tree-line and land degradation have affected their preys such as blue sheep, argali sheep, ibex, marmot, hares and game birds and as their food sources grow scarcer, they continue to starve and kill more livestock, leading to more retaliatory killings by humans.
Being one of the apex predators of the high altitude ecosystem, snow leopards also represent the health of these mountains. Their thriving population would mean better health for other species. Anti-poaching efforts are being made and international bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been trying to transform the minds of local communities by raising their awareness to protect these cats. However, the biggest threat which could have long term consequences on the population of snow leopards comes from climate change and unless we take radical measures to curb our fossil fuel consumption and mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases, the future of these once kings-of-the-mountains looks bleak and gloomy.