Check out candid footage from a ‘snow leopard signpost’ – or, as some would call it, a cat communications center.
In order to communicate, snow leopards leave markings on the landscape that other cats will find. They scrape the ground with their hind legs and spray urine against rocks.
Called snow leopard ‘sign’, even feces can act as a signal to other cats. Snow leopards tend to mark along topographic features such as ridgelines or the base of cliffs. These markings enable snow leopards to locate each other and identify the boundaries between home ranges. Scent marking in particular may also help the cats locate mates during the breeding season.
At one such location, a research camera captured several snow leopards leaving their individual marks over the course of a couple of months. Enjoy the candid footage!
Earlier this month, various media outlets reported that snow leopards ‘may be more common than thought’. The articles were quoting a recently published book (1) on these endangered cats, in which a group of authors make the claim that the snow leopard population could be much higher than prevailing estimates suggest. We wish this were the case. Unfortunately, there is no reliable scientific evidence for this claim, and it is misleading and potentially damaging to conservation efforts.
Snow leopards live across a vast and often inaccessible mountain territory. Some individual cats use home ranges that can be several hundred square kilometers large, while others are reported to use just a few dozen square kilometers. These factors make it extremely challenging to reliably count and monitor snow leopard populations. In fact, only about 1.5% of the total snow leopard range has been surveyed with reliable, internationally accepted methods such as intensive camera studies or genetic analysis of feces, and available population estimates vary accordingly. Currently, most experts assume a number between 3920 and 7500 – conscious of the fact that it’s essentially a guesstimate.
And yet, authors of this recent book chapter present new figures of up to 8,745 cats – and they claim that those numbers represent just ’44% of their range’; of course suggesting that the number across the total range may actually be significantly higher still. How is that possible, when a mere 1.5% of the total range surveyed has been surveyed using acceptable abundance estimation methods?
To arrive at these numbers, the authors have summed up regional estimates from various, in some cases unspecified sources – many of them dating back to an assessment that was done in 2008.
Most of these regional estimates are themselves not much more than educated guesses – as even the authors themselves say. For instance, ‘habitat quality’ is used as one of the indicators behind the estimate for Pakistan’s Central Karakoram area, while for certain parts of China, ‘questionnaires’ and ‘informed estimates’ provide the baseline data, according to the authors.
Other regional estimates are derived from so-called sign surveys – studies where researchers count snow leopard scat or other signs such as scrape marks within a relatively small area, and then extrapolate population numbers in a larger landscape from these findings.
While these studies can be valuable to determine if a species uses a certain area, scientists have long agreed that they are not very useful to estimate population numbers. The Snow Leopard Network has, in fact, long rejected studies or proposals that try to estimate snow leopard abundance from their signs.
In contrast, only a very small fraction of the studies used to arrive at this new, significantly higher global estimate is based on scientifically sound methods such as camera trapping or genetic analysis of feces.
In short, just like previous numbers, these population figures are once again simply guesstimates – and there is nothing in them that would suggest they’d be any more accurate than the prevailing ones.
In fact, there is a possibility that the prevailing estimates may just as likely be too high. Recent, scientifically population surveys based on camera trapping and fecal genetics in Pakistan and Nepal, for instance, suggest that the actual snow leopard populations in these countries may be significantly lower than we thought. It would be premature to take these results as evidence of a much lower population overall, but they’re certainly cause for concern.
What about the ’44% of the cats’ range’? By claiming that their population estimate of up to 8,745 snow leopards is for less than half of their global habitat, the authors imply that the real numbers may in fact be up to twice as high. This is highly misleading.
In fact, the area covered by the authors’ estimate is larger than all of the confirmed and probable snow leopard habitat combined – in other words, it contains all the areas we know or strongly suspect the cats occur in.
The remaining 56% of the range in their calculation represents what is referred to as ‘possible’ snow leopard habitat – areas that have all the ecological features the cats need, but haven’t been confirmed to actually have any snow leopards. Some of these areas almost certainly do, and others probably don’t. Even if the estimates for the 44% of the range the authors present were scientifically convincing (which they are not), it wouldn’t do to simply assume that these other, largely unexplored areas will all have roughly the same average snow leopard densities as some of the more well-studied habitats.
We welcome any attempts to come up with a more accurate, scientifically valid estimate of the world’s snow leopard population – but they have to follow the standards and best practices of science. Otherwise, results can be misleading and even detrimental to the species, as they will lead to a sense of complacency and a weakened resolve to protect this endangered cat – while in reality its situation remains precarious.
Let’s not engage in numbers games, but instead make every effort to scale up research and conservation efforts for this endangered cat!
(1) McCarthy, T., Mallon, D., Sanderson, E.W., Zahler, P. and Fisher, K.: Chapter 3: What is a Snow Leopard? Biogeography and Status Overview. In: Nyhuis, P.J., McCarthy, T., and Mallon, D. (Eds.): Biodiversity of the World: Conservation from Genes to Landscapes. 1st Edition. Snow Leopards. Elsevier Press, 2016, p. 22-42.
We are happy to see the comprehensive book on snow leopards and their biology that was published earlier this summer (1).
However, a group of authors state in a chapter of this book (2) that the global snow leopard population may be significantly higher than prevailing estimates. This claim and its implications, which have been highlighted in a press release (3) and have been covered in several media articles, are scientifically unconvincing.
We believe that conservation of endangered species should be guided by the best possible science. In the case of the snow leopard, only few rigorous population and distribution studies exist, and most of the population estimates are based on extrapolations.
Any such extrapolation must be applied with utmost care and a thorough understanding of its limitations and pitfalls. An uncritical use of survey methodologies, on the other hand, can lead to incorrect conclusions, and, as a result, a slackening of conservation efforts, with potentially grave consequences for the species.
The prevailing range of global estimates of the snow leopard population varies between 3920 and 7500. These estimates have come from various local and regional sources. In the above-mentioned book, on the other hand, the authors estimate that in just 44% of their global range, there may be between 4,678 and 8,745 cats – implying there could be twice as many in the total range.
This estimate, which is largely based on data assembled for a conservation meeting in 2008, has significant flaws.
- The authors arrive at their global population estimate by adding up regional population estimates for 68 so-called ‘Snow Leopard Conservation Units’, or SLCUs; making up 44% of the possible global snow leopard range. Only 6 of these 68 regional estimates are based on solid survey methods such as camera trapping using the mark-recapture framework or genetic data, which are considered scientifically acceptable. The rest are based on sign surveys (which can be very useful tools for the detection of a species’ presence, but are of limited value for an estimate of population numbers); interviews with local communities; and ’expert opinion’. Abundance estimates based on sign surveys have long been rejected by the Snow Leopard Network. The authors don’t provide more detailed sources on the snow leopard numbers for the different conservation units, so we have to assume that a large part of the data they used to arrive at their overall population estimate are extrapolations based on untested assumptions, and have not been scientifically peer-reviewed or published.
- The suggestion in the chapter that that there may be between 4,678 and 8,745 snow leopards in only 44 percent of their global range is highly misleading. The total surface area of the Snow Leopard Conservation Units (SLCUs) used in this estimate may only represent 44% of the possible snow leopard range (i.e. any area that has the necessary ecological features to contain snow leopards, 1,670,906 km2), but they represent more than 100% of the definitive (i.e. areas where the cat’s presence is confirmed; 892,435 km2) and probable ranges (i.e. areas with a high likelihood and recent records of snow leopards, but no definitive proof; 214,969 km2). In simpler terms, the area within which the authors have estimated the population contains the entire confirmed and likely snow leopard habitat.
Even if the population estimates for these SLCUs were scientifically sound (which, as shown above, they are not – they are, in fact, highly inadequate in their coverage), it would still be inadmissible to assume comparable densities across the entire ‘possible’ snow leopard range.
- Population studies of large carnivores, even if sampling is done across several hundred square kilometers, tend to be done in high-quality habitats with relatively high densities of the species of interest. Studies in smaller areas don’t represent density, but rather intensity of use, and can thus be misleading.
- While this allows efficient data collection, it poses significant statistical challenges for extrapolations, even if the base study’s methodology were scientifically sound. The snow leopard occurs in a vast range, where a large variety of more or less suitable habitats and threats exist. Simply assuming a stable density across this range is highly problematic, especially when study areas are not randomly selected, but biased towards areas with high density. Another challenge for estimating snow leopard numbers is the fact that only about 1.5% of the total possible snow leopard range has been sampled rigorously for snow leopard abundance, and only 14% has been covered by any form of field research at all, according to a literature review by the WWF (in preparation).
- The authors did not consider in their assessment recent studies that indicate major declines in snow leopard populations. In Pakistan, recent surveys based on camera trapping and fecal genetics in more than 70% of the country’s high quality snow leopard habitat (4) have yielded a much lower snow leopard population number in the country than previously believed. For the Alay range of Kyrgyzstan, based on interviews of local stakeholders, Taubmann et al (5) have reported significant declines in the snow leopard distribution. The aforementioned authors, in the new book, on the other hand, assume stable snow leopard populations in these areas.
The authors claim that “as more research is undertaken in snow leopard range and more technologies such as camera traps and noninvasive genetics are employed, it is becoming clear that there are likely more snow leopards than previously thought”. While it is correct that research efforts have greatly increased and have led to more available data on these cats, there is no valid, scientific evidence in this data of a greater overall population.
The fact that we now have more snow leopard studies and photos doesn’t mean that we have more snow leopards. On the contrary: results from large landscapes (e.g. Pakistan and Nepal) where robust surveys on snow leopard population have been carried out suggest that current guesstimates of snow leopard populations are either too high, or that there has been a significant decline in the populations.
Claims about populations of endangered species that aren’t based on solid science can be a disservice to conservation
While we still don’t know enough to make reliable statements on their global populations and trends, we do know that the threats to these cats are not decreasing. In fact, many new threats to snow leopards and their habitats have emerged, such as large-scale linear developments, mining, and climate change. While immense conservation efforts are being undertaken by many organizations, including the Snow Leopard Trust, there remain significant gaps and unaddressed threats. We must not grow complacent in our efforts to address these threats.
In the ‘Bishkek Declaration’ of 2013, the range country governments have committed to securing the snow leopard’s future through the ‘Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Plan’. To achieve the plan’s ambitious goal of securing 20 snow leopard landscapes by 2020, we must continue to partner with research institutions as well as the public and private sectors to scale our research and conservation efforts across the snow leopard’s range. Rather than distracting ourselves by speculating over the number of snow leopards left in the wild, we must expand reliable scientific surveys of global snow leopard populations, so we can continue to make informed decisions based on the best available science.
In 2017, the President of Kyrgyzstan is hosting a global summit on snow leopards and their conservation. This will be a unique opportunity for the conservation community, governments, and international donors to not only renew their commitment to saving this cat, but to also assess what we know, what we don’t know, and how to close those knowledge gaps.
Several staff members of the Snow Leopard Trust and its partner organizations have contributed chapters to the same book. They were not part of the team of authors who wrote the chapter in question. The content of book chapters not co-authored by Snow Leopard Trust staff members do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.
(1 & 2)
McCarthy, T., Mallon, D., Sanderson, E.W., Zahler, P. and Fisher, K.: Chapter 3: What is a Snow Leopard? Biogeography and Status Overview. In: (1) Nyhuis, P.J., McCarthy, T., and Mallon, D. (Eds.): Biodiversity of the World: Conservation from Genes to Landscapes. 1st Edition. Snow Leopards. Elsevier Press, 2016, p. 22-42.
The Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle (where our operations office is located) was filled with the delicious smell of homemade sweet treats last Friday. Two local teenagers, Theo Perlin and Ina Megalli, were holding a bake sale to benefit snow leopard conservation!
Five years ago, Ina and Theo had the same idea: they’d sell homemade cookies and scones, and collect money to help save their favorite animal – the snow leopard. By a twist of fate, the two met (or heard of each other, the details are perhaps lost to history), and decided to team up. Ever since, they’ve held an annual bake sale in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood to benefit the Snow Leopard Trust. This year, the duo have reached a milestone: they’ve now raised a total of more than $1,000 for snow leopards!
Our Executive Director, Michael Despines, stopped by their stand on his way home to grab some sweet treats for the weekend and to thank these two young conservation heroes for their awesome support. ”I’m humbled by Ina’s and Theo’s passion – and I’m in awe of their baking skills”, Michael said.
From all of us at the Snow Leopard Trust, here in Seattle and around the world, thank you, Ina and Theo – you rock!
It was in the thick of winter when Samat and his wife Shirin first started washing the coarse, rather dirty wool of their dozen or so sheep in front of their modest house in Ak-Shiyrak village, a community high up in the Kyrgyz Tian-Shan mountains. In the freezing cold, the pair were outside, elbow-deep in buckets of water, scrubbing and cleaning piles of wool. Until then, most people in Ak-Shiyrak had never bothered to wash and process their wool – there was simply no market for it. “Our neighbor saw us wash the wool, and called us fools”, Samat recalls. “He thought there was no point in doing this work, let alone in the cold.”
A couple of weeks later, however, when Shirin and Samat came home from a visit with friends late at night, they passed by that same young neighbor’s house. Peering inside, they saw him with his arms in a bucket of water, furiously washing his own wool! “He was doing it inside the house”, Samat says. “Perhaps because of the cold, but I think mostly because he didn’t want us to see him.”
Within a few weeks, dozens of denizens of Ak-Shiyrak began doing the same thing. What was going on in this mountain hamlet?
Raw wool had long been one of the few natural resources available to many families living in Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopard habitat. In the last decades, however prices had been so low that it wasn’t worth for families to process it and bring it to market. “I used to see piles of wool just lying around in stables, or outside people’s houses in the villages around here. Nobody bothered to do anything with it”, recalls Kuban Jumabaev, our Kyrgyzstan program director, who visits these mountain communities frequently.
The people of Ak-Shiyrak have been participating in our successful handicrafts-for-conservation program, Snow Leopard Enterprises, since 2003. They make unique felt products such as rugs, children’s booties, and slippers, which are sold internationally through the Snow Leopard Trust (click here to browse our online shop). These products provide participating families with a steady income – and in return, they pledge to protect wildlife in the area from poaching and illegal hunting.
“The local wool that’s produced in our snow leopard conservation partner villages is very coarse. There wasn’t much people could do with it”, says Kuban Jumabaev. So in the past, Kuban and his team would bring in high-quality wool from elsewhere for the people of Ak-Shiyrak to make products from. “Purchasing wool elsewhere cuts into the participants’ earnings, so they have been hoping we could find ways to use their own wool instead”, Kuban says.
In 2015, a solution began to take shape. “Thanks to the support of the Rufford Foundation and Punta Verde Zoo, we were able to organize a product design workshop for Snow Leopard Enterprises participants in Kyrgyzstan”, says Gina Cantara, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Manager of Sales and Marketing. “One of our trainers at the workshop, the wool artisan Sharon Costello, had a great idea: she recognized that the coarse local wool could be used for needle-felting.” Needle-felting is a technique to turn wool into a much more solid fabric, and is often used to create 3D objects such as animal ornaments. Unlike traditional felting methods, it works very well with coarser, rougher wools.
At the workshop, Sharon introduced the women of Ak-Shiyrak to the technique, and helped them come up with cute product designs: adorable needle-felted pet toys in the shape of monkeys, owls, and hedgehogs.
Since the workshop, participants in Ak-Shiyrak have produced hundreds of these new products, all made 100% of local wool, and needle-felted. “It’s incredible to see the difference these small products have made here”, Kuban says.
On his last trip to the village, Kuban met his old friend UIan, a ranger a nearby Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve. Ulan’s wife Altynai is a participant in Snow Leopard Enterprises, and has been making needle-felted monkeys and owls since the spring.
“I had thrown our wool into the livestock corral last year to make a soft bed for our newborn lambs”, Ulan told Kuban. “Now, I’ve dug all that old wool out and washed it, so Altynai could turn it into these beautiful products.”
The number of participants in Ak-Shiyrak has doubled, and the community has produced more handicrafts than ever. “The people here are more aware than ever of the value of wildlife, and more engaged in conservation”, Kuban tells us.
When he paid a visit to distribute the participant’s annual bonus, which is awarded if there is no poaching of snow leopards or their prey in their area during the year, Kuban was shocked: “People were waiting in line. I’ve never seen anything like it before!”
Kuban was particularly surprised to see Erkinbek, a former ranger he knows well. Erkinbek was in line with his wife, Mairamkan. They had both made products – and they both pocketed their bonus individually. “Erkin proudly showed me his first ever products, a handful of felted owls. They looked quite well”, Kuban says.
Quality control is an important part of Snow Leopard Enterprises. “Our local community leader checks all the products thoroughly, and sometimes returns them to the artisans if there are issues with them”, he explains.
“Making eyes, beaks and other details requires the skill and concentration of an artist. Some toy owls and monkeys look angry, some look sad, other seem happy. Some are really funny, with eyes looking in completely different directions. At the end of a purchase day, you have hundreds of owls and monkeys looking at you, almost like babies. It looks like they are asking you to ship them to US so they can be adopted by a pet and their owner as soon as possible.”
If you would like to purchase Snow Leopard Enterprise products and support the people of Ak-Shiyrak in their efforts to protect snow leopards and their prey, please go to our online shop, or visit one of our retail partners in your area.
This work is supported by Woodland Park Zoo and Partnership Funding by Fondation Segre, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature. The product design workshop for Snow Leopard Enterprises was made possible by the Rufford Foundation, and Parco Zoo Punta Verde.