Cli­mate change ham­pers snow leop­ards habi­tat

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The num­ber of snow leop­ards has de­clined by 20 per­cent across the world in the last 16 years. A re­port by the World Wildlife Fund, re­leased on Fri­day, states only 4,000 snow leop­ards re­main in the wild to­day.

The re­port also states, the ef­fects of cli­mate change could lead to fur­ther dwin­dling of the snow leop­ard pop­u­la­tion by 30 per­cent should the present trend con­tinue.

Sami Tornikoski, Leader WWF Liv­ing Hi­malayas Ini­tia­tive said that the big­gest im­pact on the snow leop­ard pop­u­la­tion con­tinue to re­main cli­mate change. But the re­cent de­cline in the specie’s pop­u­la­tion has also been con­trib­uted to an ex­tent by hu­man ac­tion such as poach­ing and re­tal­ia­tory killing.

The cat is found in only 12 coun­tries, bi­ol­o­gists said the cat plays an im­por­tant role in moun­tain ecosys­tem.

Sami said, if there are dis­tur­bances in their habi­tat, the leop­ard will not be able to roam freely.

The re­port is part of the World Wildlife Fund’s Liv­ing Hi­malayas Ini­tia­tive fo­cus­ing on snow leop­ard land­scapes and its con­ser­va­tion in Bhutan, In­dia and Nepal.

Ur­gent in­ter­na­tional ac­tion must be taken in the face of cli­mate change to save the snow leop­ard and con­serve its frag­ile moun­tain habi­tats that pro­vide wa­ter to hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple across Asia, ac­cord­ing to a new WWF re­port.

Launched on In­ter­na­tional Snow Leop­ard Day, Frag­ile Con­nec­tions: Snow leop­ards, peo­ple, wa­ter and the global cli­mate, re­veals that more than a third of snow leop­ard habi­tat could be ren­dered un­suit­able for the en­dan­gered big cats if cli­mate change is not checked.

Warmer tem­per­a­tures could see the tree line shift­ing up the moun­tains and farm­ers plant­ing crops and graz­ing live­stock at higher al­ti­tudes, squeez­ing the re­main- ing snow leop­ards into smaller pock­ets.

It is not just snow leop­ards that are at risk since their high-al­ti­tude habi­tat spans many of Asia’s ma­jor wa­ter­sheds.

The WWF re­port high­lights that over 330 mil­lion peo­ple live within 10km of rivers orig­i­nat­ing in snow leop­ard ter­ri­tory and di­rectly de­pend on them for their daily wa­ter sup­plies. Cli­mate change could dras­ti­cally al­ter the flow of wa­ter down from the moun­tains, threat­en­ing the liveli­hoods of vast num­bers of peo­ple across the con­ti­nent.

“Ur­gent ac­tion is needed to curb cli­mate change and pre­vent fur­ther degra­da­tion of snow leop­ard habi­tat, oth­er­wise the ‘ghost of the moun­tains’ could van­ish, along with crit­i­cal wa­ter sup­plies for hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple,” said Rishi Ku­mar Sharma, WWF Global Snow Leop­ard Leader, who is co­or­di­nat­ing WWF’s first ever global strat­egy to con­serve the iconic species.

There could be as few as 4,000 snow leop­ards left in Cen­tral Asia’s high moun­tains – and their num­bers are con­tin­u­ing to fall. In­creased habi­tat loss and degra­da­tion, poach­ing and con­flict with com­mu­ni­ties have con­trib­uted to a 20 per cent de­cline in the pop­u­la­tion in the past 16 years and left the species hang­ing on in many places.

Unchecked, cli­mate change will ex­ac­er­bate th­ese threats and could push the species over the edge.

Build­ing on WWF’s long his­tory in snow leop­ard con­ser­va­tion, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s new strat­egy will fo­cus on ar­eas where WWF be­lieves it can add most value to global ef­forts to con­serve the species and pro­tect peo­ple’s liveli­hoods, in­clud­ing mit­i­gat­ing the threat from cli­mate change, re­duc­ing con­flict with com­mu­ni­ties, and tack­ling poach­ing and traf­fick­ing of snow leop­ard prod­ucts.

“Cli­mate change is a ma­jor risk, but we also need to con­cen­trate on other fac­tors. 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,” said Sami Tornikoski, Leader WWF Liv­ing Hi­malayas Ini­tia­tive.

“In­dia, Nepal and Bhutan have proven that it’s pos­si­ble to in­crease the num­ber of iconic species like tigers and rhi­nos. To­gether gov­ern­ments, con­ser­va­tion­ists and com­mu­ni­ties can achieve sim­i­lar suc­cesses with snow leop­ards and drag them back from the brink,” added Tornikoski.

As part of its snow leop­ard strat­egy, WWF will con­tinue to fund vi­tal re­search, in­clud­ing the use of cam­era traps and satel­lite col­lar­ing, to col­lect more data on the elu­sive big cat.

This ap­proach as­sumes greater promi­nence af­ter the Frag­ile Con­nec­tions re­port re­vealed that less than 14 per cent of snow leop­ard habi­tat has ever been cov­ered by either re­search or con­ser­va­tion ac­tiv­i­ties.

“There are gap­ing holes in our knowl­edge of snow leop­ards – from their pop­u­la­tions to their mat­ing and feed­ing be­hav­iour – and their habi­tats. Th­ese gaps must be filled so that we have the data to de­velop more ef­fec­tive con­ser­va­tion strate­gies,” said Sharma.

But time is run­ning out. In 2013, the twelve snow leop­ard range states signed up to the am­bi­tious Global Snow Leop­ard and Ecosys­tem Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram in Bishkek. The land­mark agree­ment sig­nalled an un­prece­dented level of com­mit­ment to con­serve the snow leop­ard as well as a new era of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween gov­ern­ments, in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and civil so­ci­ety groups.

How­ever, snow leop­ard num­bers have con­tin­ued to dwin­dle.

“Re­vers­ing the down­ward trend in snow leop­ard num­bers and con­serv­ing their frag­ile habi­tat re­quire con­ser­va­tion ef­forts on an un­par­al­leled scale,” said Sharma. “It will be dif­fi­cult to achieve but the mo­men­tum and po­lit­i­cal will ex­ists: gov­ern­ments must now trans­late this into ac­tion by swiftly scal­ing up their ef­forts to save the ghost of the moun­tains.

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