(CNN)There’s a reason they call the snow leopard the “ghost of the mountains.” The chances of seeing one are almost nonexistent, even for those who spend their lives looking for them.
It’s part of what makes the snow leopard unique, along with a distinct set of features supremely adapted for life in the frigid high mountains of Asia. A long, thick tail for balancing and wrapping around the body and face for warmth. Large paws like snowshoes. An enlarged nasal cavity for breathing cold, thin air.
The ghost of the mountains is among nature’s greatest masterpieces.
But this evolutionary marvel — a seemingly unbeatable force of adaptation — is facing threats that even it isn’t equipped to handle without some help.
Recent analysis by World Wildlife Fund, through funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, suggests that significant portions of snow leopards’ habitat in the Himalayas could be rendered unsuitable as a result of climate change.
As temperatures warm, crop production and grazing could intensify in areas that snow leopards inhabit, limiting the cats’ hunting range and causing conflict with human livelihoods. Warming temperatures are also expected to shift the existing tree line higher up the mountain slopes, altering significant areas of snow leopard habitat. All told, a warming planet paints a gloomy forecast for snow leopards, a species already feeling the pinch of a rapidly changing world.
And there’s reason for people to be concerned beyond just saving a beautiful animal. As it happens, the futures of snow leopards and humans are very intertwined.
For starters, more than a quarter of the world’s human population packs the water basins downstream from the snow leopard’s high-alpine home. Some 330 million of these people live within 6 miles of rivers born in snow leopard habitat and are directly dependent on the water flowing out of these mountains. Countless more across Asia rely on the water indirectly for industry and irrigation.
In other words, snow leopard habitat is critically important to the future of hundreds of millions of people. Climate change, in creating a harsh new world for snow leopards, will also threaten water security and reshape the lives of a vast human population downstream.
Meanwhile, as climate change looms as a long-term menace, more imminent problems already connect snow leopards and people and could render a warming planet moot for the big cats. Human settlements are increasingly encroaching on snow leopard habitat, and wild prey species are dwindling.
As territories begin to overlap, snow leopards prey more and more on livestock, often a family’s main source of income. The Snow Leopard Trust’s ongoing studies in large parts of the Himalayan and Central Asian Mountains show intensifying killing of livestock by snow leopards as human pressures increase retaliatory killings of snow leopards to protect one’s livelihood.
Adding to this are killings of snow leopards for the illegal wildlife trade, further chipping away at their overall population. As of today, there may be as few as 4,000 snow leopards remaining, and perhaps fewer than 2,500 breeding adults. And this number is falling.
But these threats aren’t inevitable. In fact, there is a role for all to play in safeguarding snow leopards and preserving their mountain home.
Governments of the 12 countries where snow leopards live are already working together to further conservation of the big cat. United toward this common goal, these countries can better enforce laws against illegal wildlife trade, cooperate to manage transboundary resources such as water for the well-being of the entire region, and protect existing snow leopard habitat with strong conservation policies.
In the high mountains where conflict between humans and leopards occurs, we must recognize local people as part of the solution and not the problem. Projects such as the USAID-funded Conservation and Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountain Landscapes and Communities empower local people to study and protect snow leopards whose home they share and work toward solutions that don’t involve the persecution of leopards.
In northeastern Nepal’s Kangchenjunga conservation area, local communities have built predator-proof corrals that safeguard their livestock with WWF support. Since the introduction of the first such corral in 2012, not a single loss to predation has been reported at these sites.
In several other countries, the Snow Leopard Trust is pioneering community-run programs to insure herders’ livestock so they can get compensation when predation does occur and handicrafts programs that enable women to earn a livelihood while participating in snow leopard conservation.
On a global level, we can all work to curb the carbon emissions that are the root cause of climate change. With the U.N. climate talks in Paris fast approaching, governments must figure out how to ratchet up their efforts to fill the gap between what they’ve already pledged in terms of emissions cuts and what’s actually needed to be in line with science and avoid the worst effects of climate change. We must urge our leaders to close this emissions gap and do it fast.
Finally, we must accelerate efforts to stop wildlife crime, which threatens not only snow leopards but also countless other species around the world.
The ghost of the mountains is in trouble, but it is not yet doomed. Together we can ensure that the nickname given to the snow leopard for its elusiveness doesn’t end up carrying a much grimmer connotation. And if we are able to save this one species, we will help save our own.
It’s called the paralimbic cleft. A highly developed set of lobes that may “enable some brain function we can’t even envision because we lack it,” David Neiwert writes in Of Orcas and Men.
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