Snow Leopards:
Threats and Legal Protection

September 26, 2021Lu Shegay


The snow leopard is a felid in the genus Panthera native to Central Asian and South Asian countries. This species is listed as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List because the global population is expected to decline by about 10% by 2040. These animals are mostly threatened by hunting, poaching, climate change effect, and human development.

Snow leopards bear a symbolic meaning for some countries, particularly those where they live. For instance, they are widely referred to as an emblem in Central Asia. It has long been used as a political symbol, the Aq Bars ('White Leopard'), by Tatars, Kazakhs, and Bulgars. A snow leopard is depicted on the official seal of Almaty and on the former 10 000 Kazakhstani tenge banknote. Currently, the snow leopard is a symbol of Almaty city in Kazakhstan; illustrated on the coat of arms of Tatarstan, the autonomous administrative region of Russia, and the coat of arms of Shushensky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai (Russia); a symbol of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan; a seal of Samarqand city in Uzbekistan; and declared the national animal of Pakistan.

"Snow leopard looking upwards" by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


The range countries where snow leopards live include Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. According to the last assessment of the IUCN Red List in 2016, the population of snow leopards was approximately 2710 - 3386 mature individuals, however, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated their population at 4080 - 6590 individuals.

There are so many threats to wildlife with the ongoing conditions of climate change that are mostly caused by agricultural activity, in particular, using animals in agriculture. Because of these factors, many wildlife animals are losing their habitat, thus the population continues to decline. The last assessment of the population of snow leopards has been done a while ago, therefore, conservation groups and researchers are not able to name the exact number of individuals that are now left in the world. Like many other wildlife animals, snow leopards are facing lots of threats from human activities. These threats include poaching, habitat loss, the decline in prey, climate change, retaliatory killing, etc.

Because snow leopards inhabit the areas in the mountains, human intervention and infrastructure development fragment and destroy these animals’ habitat by building homes, farms, factories. As a result, many snow leopards get killed by humans for attacking their livestock or, in some cases, for the purposes of self-defense.

Poaching is another widespread reason for killing wild animals, including snow leopards. And, even though poaching is believed to have been declining since 1990, illegal trapping and killing are still happening and impact the overall population of animals. According to the TRAFFIC report published in 2016, the conservation group from the United Kingdom working against wildlife trade estimated 221 - 450 snow leopards being illegally killed annually since 2008, and the real statistics might be higher. However, illegal hunting is not the only problem, regular hunting harms these animals too due to the fact that humans hunt other animals that are prey to snow leopards. For example, snow leopards hunt wild mountain sheep and wild goats - these animals are usually hunted by local communities. This demonstrates how hunting is detrimental and how it impacts the entire ecosystem and the population of wildlife.

As was mentioned above, the climate crisis influences many animals around the world, and the snow leopard is not an exception. While some animals have to lose their habitat due to deforestation, wildfires, etc., snow leopards experience a temperature rise. According to the Snow Leopard Trust, “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 are threatened by climate change, with their habitat expected to be three degrees warmer by 2050. 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.”

"Snow leopard" by John Linwood is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Legal Protection

The Red Book of Kazakhstan, the source where rare and endangered species of animals and plants are listed. The provisions of the Red Book are regulated by the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On Specially Protected Territories.” The seizure of rare and endangered species of animals, their parts or derivatives is allowed in exceptional cases by the decision of the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan for breeding in special conditions for scientific, reproductive, and commercial purposes with the subsequent release to wild; development of national types of hunting; scientific research; selection. It is prohibited to perform such actions, which can lead to the death of rare and endangered species of animals, and to the reduction of the population or destruction of their habitat, except for the cases mentioned above. (Art. 32-1)

India has granted the highest level of protection to snow leopards under the Wildlife Protection Act. Hunting of snow leopards is punished by imprisonment of 3-7 years. Nepal also legally protects snow leopards and penalizes hunting with a penalty of 5-15 years of imprisonment for the violation of law and a fine for poaching and using these animals in trade. Recently, Nepal collared two snow leopards for further research of the declining species. China has been legally protecting snow leopards since 1989, and hunting and trading these animals or their body parts constitute a criminal offense that is punished by the confiscation of property, a fine, and a sentence of at least 10 years in prison. Other countries, such as Afghanistan and Bhutan, also has been providing protection to these animals for decades.

Internationally, the snow leopard is protected by being listed in Appendix I of CITES, which provides the highest protection in trade. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction, and trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. The snow leopard has also been listed as threatened with extinction in Schedule I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals since 1985.

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