Recently I received news that one of the most mysterious and beautiful creatures on the planet was being taken off the endangered species list.
I am talking about the snow leopard.
Listing and delisting a species can come with a lot of confusion as subjects like this one deal with everything from extremely difficult population analysis to its interpretation.
In this special case I turned to someone I trust and respect my friend from the other side of the world Dr. Natalie Schmitt who as you will see is doing some great work that will benefit snow leopards and other wild felines.
Here is the transcript of the questions I sent her and as always she answered with great detail and honesty.
Do you feel the delisting of the snow leopard is justified?
I think the decision by the (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) IUCN assessment team to downgrade the snow leopard’s conservation status from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ is justified as the species needed to meet very specific criteria to maintain that status.
A continuation of the ‘endangered’ classification for the snow leopard would have required two criteria to be met, 1.) a population consisting of less than 2,500 adults, and 2.) a rate of decline exceeding 20 percent over 16 years. The expert assessor team (consisting of five respected international experts), using the best information available, determined that the snow leopard currently meets neither criteria.
Although recent studies suggest that snow leopard numbers are likely higher than previously thought, the assessment team took an exceptionally precautionary approach, including using the lowest widely accepted global population size (4,000) when determining if the ‘endangered’ threshold could be met.
Although we still have only very crude estimates of snow leopard abundance based on sightings, camera trap recordings and interviews with local people, more accurate estimates are likely to not have any impact on the conservation status according to the expert team. However, my personal concern is that the decision has been made prematurely before broader-scale surveys are conducted with more accurate counting methods, to know for certain. In fact, in the full report on the snow leopard, the IUCN noted that population numbers could be partly speculative, given the difficulties in collecting accurate data on the elusive species across its full range from Afghanistan through to China.
What has been the main contributing factor to an increase in population?
Conservation efforts have been pinnacle in helping to prevent snow leopard extinction, particularly efforts to stop poaching and cutting off illegal trafficking routes however, as far as we are aware, the population is still decreasing, just not as rapidly as we once thought.
What are some negatives that could come from de-listing the snow leopard?
The biggest concern about the recent downlisting is that the lower status may weaken conservation efforts in range countries and the ability of local governments to stop the major threats to their survival. Some funding sources are also restricted to Endangered or Critically Endangered species, so there may be less funding opportunities for the species.
Tell us about your invention for tracking species like the snow leopard?
This invention has become the biggest life sacrifice for me, because I believe in its value so much! With the help of biomedical experts from McMaster University, the Centre for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal and Panthera, we aim to develop a simple, inexpensive, accurate, sensitive and portable DNA detection kit that can be used by non-experts for the rapid detection of species from the evidence they leave behind.
Through the identification of animals from their droppings we can gain an accurate estimate of population abundance, and the kit will be particularly useful for the detection of rare and elusive species where scats are difficult to identify morphologically. The portability and affordability of the kit will also make it easier for detecting species inhabiting challenging terrain, and in developing countries where conservation funding is limited. Once identified, those samples can then be taken back to the lab for further analysis of diet and disease.
The kit can also be used by customs officers to rapidly identify the remains of illegally trafficked species such as skins and bone. It is the lack of ability to be able to distinguish between legal and illegal wildlife products that represents the biggest issue in the enforcement and prosecution of wildlife trafficking. By improving our frontline detection methods we can identify poaching hotspots and trafficking routes, determine the geographic origin and age of the product, as well as assist law enforcement officers to prevent future crimes.
Finally, the simple design will allow the detection kit to be used by non-experts such as local communities and for citizen science initiatives. The usability of the kit will help local people to be directly involved in identifying and mitigating threats to wildlife, thereby expanding conservation outcomes.
We’ve already made significant headway and with the support of people and organisations who believe in the value of this idea too, we’ll get there.
To subscribe to regular updates on the project and to make a donation, please visit https://www.natscatsdna.com/
What are the greatest challenges for the species moving forward?
Despite the IUCN downlisting of the species, snow leopards are still considered at high risk of extinction from habitat loss and degradation from mining and infrastructure development, declines in prey populations and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade. It is so important that we don’t become complacent in our efforts to preserve this important apex predator.
The snow leopard plays a crucial part in maintaining the health of the Himalayan ecosystem.
Chester Moore, Jr.