Big cats on the roof of the world: Protecting Asia's elusive snow leopards

Story highlights

  • Only 4,500 to 10,000 snow leopards roam Asia's mountain ranges
  • They're threatened by loss of prey, poaching and climate change
  • Conservation must consider the cultural, religious and political diversity of the big cat's realm

Tom McCarthy is the executive director of the Snow Leopard Program at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. The views expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)Barren, wind-swept rock is all I can see through the telescope.

But my Ladahki associate assures me that "shan is there," and I trust him since he is one of the best wildlife spotters in all of the Himalayas.
    At last, on a ridgeline a mile distant, the snow leopard (shan in Ladahki) slowly lifts its head, yawns, shifts slightly to find a more comfortable position on the exposed boulder, and lays back down.
    Even at this distance I see the cat's thick fur being tousled by the biting wind on the mountain ridge 17,000 feet (5,000 meters) up.
    Superbly adapted to life in the highest, coldest and most rugged mountains on the planet, the snow leopard seems content to continue its midday nap. Less well adapted, I retreat to the village below our vantage point.
    Seeing a wild snow leopard is rare due to their inaccessible habitat, how few exist and how sparsely they occur across their vast range.
    Known as the "ghost of the mountains," snow leopards inhabit the major ranges of Asia, including the Altai, Tian Shan, Kunlun, Pamirs, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayas.
    Only 4,500 to 10,000 of the elusive cats roam roughly 800,000 square miles of precipitous terrain from southern Siberia in the north to India in the south, and east to west from Uzbekistan to Yunnan, China.
    This may explain why the sleepy snow leopard in Ladakh, India was only the seventeenth I have seen in over two decades of studying and working to conserve the species.

    Remote but not isolated

    While I am extremely fortunate to have seen even one of these magnificent beasts in their natural surroundings, the many humans, mostly pastoralists, who share Asia's high peaks with snow leopards are somewhat less enamored with the stealthy predator.
    Snow leopards subsist on wild mountain-dwelling hoofed animals such as ibex, bharal and markhor.
    Domestic sheep and goats whose predator avoidance skills have been mostly lost, provide livelihoods for humans in the dry cold region where other forms of agriculture yield minimal returns.
    Snow leopard habitat is often labeled as "remote" but that's a relative term.
    It is not "remote" to the large human population that pushes ever deeper into central Asia's high valleys seeking grazing land for their herds.
    There are few snow leopards who don't interact with humans and their livestock at some point. Thus, the elements of conflict are all present and many snow leopards are killed in retaliation for preying on livestock.
    Blame cannot be laid at either's feet -- snow leopards apply a highly evolved skill to gain a meal and a poor shepherd defends his flock to feed his own family.
    A path to coexistence has long been sought by snow leopard conservationists.
    Tom McCarthy, left, executive director,  Panthera Snow Leopard program and Yin Hang formerly of Chinese NGO Shan Shui, second right, discuss snow leopard monitoring methods with Buddhist monks.

    Corrals, vaccinations, monks

    Actually there is not one path to coexistence, but many.
    Conservation solutions are as diverse as the region itself and must consider the cultural, religious and political diversity of the big cat's realm.
    Snow leopards inhabit monarchies, republics and communist states where Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism and Christianity are practiced.
    No fewer than 20 names exist for snow leopards in local languages. From a conservation solution standpoint, one size does not fit all.
    This is why Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization that I work for, tailors snow leopard conservation projects by site with emphasis on the needs and desires of local people.
    A predator proof corral built for two villages in Ghund Valley, Tajikistan.
    National laws, international treaties and protected areas all play a role in saving endangered species such as snow leopards, but lacking participation of the people who live with the cats, true conservation success would be elusive.
    Social science as much as biology guides snow leopard conservation today and yields remedies equitable to people and cats.
    When herders in Pakistan explained they lost more livestock to disease than to predators, offering a vaccination program in exchange for tolerance of a few losses to snow leopards was an obvious, and quite successful solution.
    In Ladakh, India and the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the root cause of conflict is removed by helping herders build predator-proof corrals.
    Where corrals are not feasible, community-managed livestock insurance programs lessen the financial impact of predation.
    On the Tibetan Plateau of China, Buddhist monks help monitor snow leopard numbers with automated cameras and use the images to encourage their followers to protect the cats.
    It is moving to see 10,000 people at a Buddhist festival pledge to protect snow leopards for the rest of their lives. These are but a few of the many examples of how people who once feared snow leopards have become their stewards.
    Is the snow leopard now safe?
    Closer, but loss of native prey, poaching for hides and bones (valued in traditional Asian medicine), and the potentially serious impacts of climate change on their fragile high-elevation habitat still mean an uncertain future for snow leopards.
    We must fight on.