Cat on a hot tin roof
On the roof of the world, the high mountains and plateaus of Central Asia, lives the enigmatic snow leopard—an endangered wild cat which is said to roam the inhospitable landscapes in over 12 countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), a contiguous range that covers 1.2-1.6 million sq. km.
So elusive is the snow leopard, and so rare its harsh habitat, that in the last four decades scientists say they have only been able to study 2-4% of the cat’s global range for population estimation. It remains one of the least studied amongst all the big cats. In the book Snow Leopards: Biodiversity Of The World: Conservation From Genes To Landscapes (2016), authors Tom McCarthy and David Mallon, two well-known experts on the species, “guesstimated” the global population of snow leopards, putting it at 7,367-7,884.
While the book has been hailed as the most comprehensive synthesis of available knowledge on the ecology and conservation of snow leopards, it made the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) review the species status in its “Red List of Threatened Species”—a globally accepted compendium on the status of wild flora and fauna.
The IUCN Red List has nine categories, with robust criteria for each—Extinct (EX), Extinct in the Wild (EW), Critically Endangered (CE), Endangered (EN), Vulnerable (VU), Near Threatened (NT), Least Concern (LC), Data Deficient (DD) and Not Evaluated (NE). Species listed in CE, EN and VU are considered threatened with extinction.
In September, the IUCN Red List, also referred to as a “barometer of life” by conservationists, announced that 25,062 of the 87,967 species it now covers are threatened with extinction. The snow leopard was moved from the EN category to the VU category on “new available data”. Iconic species like the one-horned rhino, giant panda and African elephants, too, have in the recent past been moved from the EN category to the VU category.
The decision to downlist the snow leopard has split the conservation community. For, in the past decade, the snow leopard has followed the trajectory of its cousin, the tiger, to become a global icon for conservation, and an emblem of the high-altitude ecosystem. These cats are the big brands, if not cash cows, of the conservation world, receiving millions of dollars in donation. It’s not easy for conservationists to digest a demotion, which could affect the brand value for donors. Wildlife conservation is not short of controversy, especially when the stakes are high.
One school of thought, then, is distraught, saying the downlist will further endanger the species, which already faces grave threat from mining and infrastructure development projects, as well as poaching..
The other group maintains that according to globally accepted norms, in order to make it to the EN list, a population of less than 2,500 mature individuals with a high rate of decline is necessary. The shift, it is argued, does not undermine the perceived level of threat the species faces.
A statement from IUCN clarified the point: “The snow leopard population continues to decline and it still faces a high risk of extinction through habitat loss and degradation, declines in prey, competition with livestock, persecution, and poaching for illegal wildlife trade. Thanks to significant investments in conservation for this species, including anti-poaching efforts, initiatives to reduce conflict with livestock, and awareness-raising programmes, conditions in parts of the snow leopard’s range have improved. It is essential to continue and expand conservation efforts to reverse its declining trend and prevent this iconic cat from moving even closer to extinction.”
A Downlist Is Not A Demotion: Red List Status And Reality, a paper by Mallon and Rodney Jackson, a pioneer in the study of snow leopards, says: “A reassignment to a lower category of threat on the Red List, even as in the case of the recategorization of the snow leopard from EN to VU, should always be viewed as positive, even though the change may appear modest and the species remains imperilled. The Red List is not intended to serve as the sole means of setting conservation priorities. If a long-term aim is to conserve species in dynamic, fully functioning ecosystems across landscape scales, then priorities should be set on a comprehensive basis, as appears to be highlighted, for example, by the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP).”
The Global Snow Leopard Forum, a consortium of governments, NGOs and experts, floated the GSLEP to secure at least 20 landscapes for the snow leopard by 2020. It held the first Global Snow Leopard Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in August.
“Downlists on the Red List indicate conservation success and it is important to celebrate these events to reinforce the message to donors, governments and the public that conservation works and further investments are worthwhile. In fact, continued funding and effort are vital to mitigate key and emerging threats and prevent the species from reverting to a previously higher threatened status,” say Mallon and Jackson in the paper.
They add that in view of the misapprehensions, it may be helpful to accompany downlists with appropriate messages that emphasize the good news, the role played by successful action where relevant, and the need to continue, not relax, conservation efforts to consolidate the new status.
In India, the snow leopard remains a Scheduled I species under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972—afforded, thereby, the highest legal protection. But for the past eight years, there has been virtually no movement on the Snow Leopard Project, which was launched by the government way back in 2009.
Now, with the infusion of $11.5 million (Rs74.7 crore) from the Global Environment Facility (a partnership between UN agencies, development banks, international NGOs and governments) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a seven-year project, SECURE (Securing Livelihoods, Conservation, Sustainable Use and Restoration of High Range Himalayan Ecosystem), has been launched. It will include the snow leopard. Four snow leopard range states—Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Sikkim—will be the beneficiaries. But if the project is to show results, peer-reviewed audits on the way funds are spent may be necessary.
Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.