Why was the snow leopard’s Red List status changed?
The Red List of Threatened Species, maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. The snow leopard has been listed as ‘Endangered’ on the Red List since 1986, when it was first assessed.
IUCN reviews and re-assess all species listed on the Red List periodically. It started the most recent re-assessment for the snow leopard 3 years ago, inviting SLT’s Science & Conservation Director, Charu Mishra, to lead the process. During the process, there was a split among the experts who had been invited to help with the assessment. The split led to one group submitting an assessment in favor of a status change to ‘Vulnerable’, and another group, including Charu Mishra, arguing in favor of the status remaining ‘Endangered’.
IUCN has a set of criteria that determine what a species’ conservation status should be. E.g., for a species to be considered ‘Endangered’, there must be fewer than 2,500 mature (breeding) individuals, and a decline of 20% in the global population over two generations must have occurred. For a species to be considered ‘Vulnerable’, the number of mature individuals must be lower than 10,000, and the decline at least 10% over three generations.
The assessment in favor of ‘Vulnerable’ argued that the criteria for ‘Endangered’ were not met, and claimed that there were more snow leopards than previously assumed. The ‘Endangered’ assessment, on the other hand, maintained that there was no scientific basis for changing the status.
IUCN’s reviewers favored the ‘Vulnerable’ assessment, which has led to the status being changed accordingly.
Does this mean the snow leopard is no longer endangered?
No. First of all, the IUCN’s Red List is an indicator – not a final verdict – on a species’ conservation status. Second, the snow leopard has not been removed from the Red List; it has just been given a different Red List status, officially called ‘Vulnerable’ (abbreviated as Vu).
The change does not reflect a measurable improvement in the cat’s overall situation. Instead, as IUCN writes, it’s based on a “revised estimate of the number of mature individuals”, and addresses what they refer to as a mistake in the previous assessment, which had been published in 2008: “[T]he change from EN to VU is therefore a non-genuine change.”
The snow leopard remains under acute threat.
What does a ‘Vulnerable’ status mean?
A species is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ when it is not ‘Critically Endangered’ or ‘Endangered’ but is still facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.
Why is the Snow Leopard Trust opposed to the change in status?
We believe the best available science does not justify the status change, and that it could have serious consequences for the species.
The IUCNs guidelines (see “IUCN RED LIST CATEGORIES AND CRITERIA, Version 3.1 Second edition”, Annex 1) make it clear that any status assessment should follow a precautionary approach. If the best available data aren’t conclusive, no down-listing should be done.
In the case of the snow leopard, less than 2% of the species’ range has ever been sampled for abundance using reliable techniques such as camera traps or genetic analysis. In addition, the limited solid data that is available is biased toward high-density areas. The new assessment behind the status change of the snow leopard does not improve on this data and appears to use methodologies – such as asking people how many snow leopards they think exist in any area – that are not recognized as scientifically valid for estimating populations.
In contrast, the latest information based on genetic and trap camera surveys from one of the range countries, i.e. Pakistan, where a large proportion of the habitat has been sampled, shows that the snow leopard population there could be as low as 40 cats, and is almost certainly lower than 100, compared to the earlier guesstimate of 200-420 cats. This varying data suggests that snow leopard populations in some parts of their habitat may be lower than assumed, and that more robust science is needed to ensure an accurate assessment before revising the status.
In addition, demographic modeling based on the limited solid data that is available actually showed results in favor of an Endangered listing.
What could the consequences of the status change be?
The potential consequences of an unwarranted down-listing could be very serious. In the last four years, range country governments have launched the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Program (GSLEP), the first range-wide initiative to protect these cats. There has never been as much political will or momentum to secure the snow leopard’s future. However, conservation action might become harder to justify politically if there is a belief that the cat’s situation has improved.
We do know that the threats to snow leopard survival are growing. Climate change threatens two-thirds of snow leopard habitat. Mining companies are increasing their efforts to gain access to snow leopard home ranges. Illegal hunting, poaching, and retaliatory killing of snow leopards are on the rise in many areas. We are most concerned about how the lower status may weaken conservation efforts in range countries and the ability of local governments to stop these threats. There are vested interests who will use this change to push for trophy hunting of snow leopards. Governments may have less support from some sectors of their society to create protected areas for snow leopards given the revised status.
Why is there not more data / why is the available data insufficient?
The snow leopard’s habitat is extremely vast, very difficult to access, and highly rugged. The species occurs at a relatively low density and is famously elusive. These factors combine to make the snow leopard difficult to observe and study. As a result, less than 2% of the cat’s total habitat have been sampled for abundance using scientifically sound methods such as camera trapping and genetic analysis of feces (see Snow Leopard Survival Strategy, 2014, for details). In addition, the existing studies have a bias toward relatively high-density areas, so they’re of limited validity for a global population assessment.
We also have limited information on key population parameters such as reproduction rate, cub survival, ago of first reproduction, and life expectancy, for wild snow leopard population – all of which are critically important for the assessment of a species’ population and status.
Due to all these factors, all prevailing population estimates are at best guesses, and small changes in the parameter values used to model populations can lead to vastly different results.
What is the Snow Leopard Trust going to do about it?
Due to our serious concerns about the scientific validity of the snow leopard’s Vulnerable status, we will formally challenge the decision in writing by filing a petition with IUCN. This process begins immediately. If this petition is denied, the Vulnerable status will remain in effect for approximately five years, until the next assessment is conducted.
We are also working to improve the data available to allow for a more accurate snow leopard population estimate.
Over the next three to five years, we hope to mobilize widespread support across the snow leopard conservation community to organize a coordinated sampling of the entire snow leopard habitat – a project we’re calling PAWS (Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards). This initiative has been formally endorsed by all twelve snow leopard range countries at the International Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Forum in Kyrgyzstan last month. Work on PAWS has already begun, and we are collaborating closely with the GSLEP Secretariat and leading scientists to develop the sampling methodology. We are also working with range country governments to implement new field surveys where possible to improve population estimates in each country.
In parallel, our science team is working towards long-term data-sets of snow leopard population dynamics, which will provide additional critical information for scientific assessments of snow leopard population status and management.
Our goal is to significantly improve the data that is available for the next assessment to improve the accuracy of the analysis.