For the endangered animals of our planet—like the rare and regal snow leopard—climate change means much more than hotter days and intensified storms. These creatures face the prospect of a significant transformation of the habitats that sustain them.
A new WWF study raises concerns about the possible impact of global climate change on snow leopard habitat. This elusive, solitary cat—with an estimated population between 4,000 and 6,500— lives across a vast area of northern and central Asia, including the Himalayan Mountains. In the Himalayas, snow leopards live in high alpine areas above treeline and generally below 16,000 feet, where they stealthily track their prey.
The researchers first used field-based data and environmental information such as land cover, terrain ruggedness, and elevation to map current snow leopard habitat. They then used statistical methods to look at the potential impact of climate change on Himalayan treeline under three greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.
The study’s results have raised concerns about how climate change may affect snow leopards. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase steadily, 30 percent of snow leopard habitat in those mountains may be lost to treeline shift. Even relatively low future emissions could mean a loss of as much as 10 percent of existing habitat. Increasing fragmentation of alpine areas may separate populations of snow leopards, leading to isolation that could threaten their viability.
Protection for Snow Leopards
While the study concluded that some locally important habitat is severely threatened by climate change, adequate habitat for snow leopards should remain in the region if well managed. As some of the areas resilient to climate change straddle multiple nations, WWF may decide to invest in expanded transboundary conservation efforts. Such work might include establishing protected areas that span national borders, and corridors that connect isolated animal populations.
Researchers emphasized the need to minimize pervasive threats like illegal hunting, human-wildlife conflict, and overgrazing of livestock in snow leopard habitat. Minimizing these concurrent threats will help snow leopards to combat the additional stress posed by climate-induced habitat change.
Rigorous monitoring by WWF and its partners will remain an essential element of an effective conservation plan for snow leopards, enabling us to respond to the emerging effects of climate on snow leopards, and to minimize other threats to their continued survival.
Making strategic, research-based choices in our work to benefit snow leopards will help us develop effective conservation solutions. Data and maps like those generated by this WWF research are some of the most powerful tools we have to ensure the future of these magnificent, threatened cats.