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Snow Leopard: Endangered Species
Snow leopard
Over 30 experts including conservationists, scientists and policy makers from Bhutan, China, Finland, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the UK and the USA met in Bhutan from 14-17 March 2005 in a workshop that aimed at developing a regional conservation strategy and action plan for the endangered Snow Leopard in the Himalayas.

The workshop was organised by the WWF Bhutan Programme Office and brought together government representatives from Bhutan, Nepal and India as well as experts from the Helsinki Zoo, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the International Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Network, various WWF offices from the region, as well as UK and USA, and TRAFFIC.

The workshop provided an important opportunity for participants to exchange information about the conservation status of Snow Leopards in the Himalayan sub-region, review information on existing conservation initiatives and share experiences and perspectives for the development of a regional conservation strategy for this elusive cat.

Three working groups were formed to develop a regional action plan and strategy that will address illegal trade, human wildlife conflict and habitat degeneration, the three primary factors threatening the existence of the Snow Leopard in the Himalayan range. The action plan will be used as a guide for the programmes to be initiated regionally for Snow Leopard conservation and in raising funds for this cause. The regional nature of this strategy and action plan will help to facilitate and foster a collaborative conservation effort among the range countries, WWF and other conservation organisations working in South Asia.

Snow Leopards occur in the high mountains of the Central Asia and the Himalayan region in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China has the highest number of Snow Leopards in the Himalayan range while Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Pakistan together have about 25 % of the total Snow Leopard population; the remaining are in Central Asia. The species is considered endangered throughout its range.

Scientist estimate that there could be around 3 500-7 000 Snow Leopards left in the wild. However, these numbers are little more than an estimate, Snow Leopards are difficult to monitor because they are elusive, solitary animals that live in remote mountain locations of up to 5 500m.

The TRAFFIC report "Fading footprints: the killing and trade of snow leopards" published in 2003 showed that the species and its body parts are being illegally traded in all 12 range states (with the possible exception of Bhutan, where little information exists), despite the fact that killing and trade is strictly prohibited at national and international level. Snow leopards are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1975, meaning that international trade in Snow Leopard is strictly prohibited. In addition, the killing and use of Snow Leopards is prohibited in all range countries. However, the implementation and enforcement of the legislation in place is often weak and needs urgent addressing.

The threats facing Snow Leopards are mostly economically fuelled: the natural prey of Snow Leopards has either been eliminated or much reduced due to overgrazing by livestock, uncontrolled hunting, habitat fragmentation and other disturbances. Consequently, Snow Leopard have been preying on domestic livestock which led to conflicts with local herders who depend on the livestock as their main source of income in the alpine and sub-alpine regions of the Himalayas. In retaliation, livestock owners may kill Snow Leopards to protect their livestock. In addition to this, Snow Leopards are also increasingly subject to killing to supply demand for its pelt and other body parts.

The Snow Leopards pelts are the main parts in demand and often the main motive for the illegal killings. But other body parts such as bones may also be used for medicinal purposes. Sometimes live animals are sold for circuses or private zoos. The pelts are used as wall hangings or in clothing items.

In recent years there have been growing concerns about the levels of trade in Asian Big Cat skins and other wildlife from South Asian countries to China. Tibet has become an important destination for skins of big cats such as Tigers, Leopards and Snow Leopards where the skins are used to trim chubas, the traditional costumes. The use of animal skins has been a tradition in Amdo, eastern Tibet. However, in recent years this tradition was been revived in Amdo, and now has also become fashionable and a symbol of status and wealth in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities in China. In 2003, the Tibetan Autonomous Region seized 1 392 animal skins including 31 Bengal Tigers, 581 Leopards, 786 Otter and two Lynx skins pieces.

With an expanding presence in China and its South Asia regional programme about to be launched, TRAFFIC is well-positioned to play a key role in helping to address trade threats to Snow Leopards and other Asian Big Cats. Activities will include enforcement support along the main trade routes and collaboration between TRAFFIC East Asia and WWF China Programme office to gain a better understanding of the cultural and other factors driving skin demand in Tibet and design educational and awareness-raising approaches on the basis of this knowledge.

Source: TRAFFIC, April 12, 2005

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