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WWF calls for urgent action to protect snow leopards

World Wildlife Fund report said that more than a third of snow leopard habitat could be rendered "unsuitable" for the big cats if climate change is not checked.

Updated: Oct 25, 2015, 08.46 PM IST
A snow leopard with her cubs. (AFP photo)
A snow leopard with her cubs. (AFP photo)
NEW DELHI: With only 4,000 snow leopards left in the wild and 500 of them in India, a new report has urged countries to take urgent action in the wake of climate change to save the endangered species and conserve its "fragile" mountain habitats.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report titled "Fragile Connections: Snow leopards, people, water and the global climate" said that more than a third of snow leopard habitat could be rendered "unsuitable" for the 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 remaining snow leopards into smaller pockets," a WWF India report said.

It said it is not just snow leopards that are at risk since their high-altitude habitat spans many of Asia's major watersheds but 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," it said.

This year is also the "International Year of the Snow Leopard" and marks an important turning point as snow leopard range countries across the WWF network commit to take action and start an exciting new global initiative to save the animal.

"The snow leopard is considered to be the guardian and indicator species of the high mountains of Asia. Mysterious and elusive, the cat has fascinated explorers, researchers and conservationists across the world.

"With an estimated population of 500 cats, India has been a leading player in the conservation efforts to secure the snow leopard and its habitat in the Himalayas. The WWF campaign on the snow leopard is an initiative that will help the conservation of the species and the threats it faces globally," said Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO, WWF-India.

WWF India said there could be as few as 4,000 snow leopards left in the wild with only around 500 in India — 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," it said.

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, it said.

WWF India said as part of its snow leopard strategy, it will 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, it said.

"The snow leopard is an iconic species and an indicator of ecological health of the high Himalayas. Recent studies have shown that the combination of unsustainable land-use practices and effects of climate change has affected their populations," said Dipankar Ghose, director, species and landscapes, WWF-India.

In 2013, 12 snow leopard range states signed up to the ambitious 'Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program' in Bishkek.

Although the agreement signalled an unprecedented level of commitment to conserve the snow leopard as well as start of a new era of collaboration between governments, international organizations and civil society groups, their numbers have continued to dwindle, WWF India said.

"Government, communities and conservationists now need to come together to conserve snow leopard by protecting their habitats, tackling poaching and protecting livelihoods of communities living in their habitats," Ghose added.
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