Tackling Illegal Trade and Poaching of Snow Leopards

US Fish and Wildlife Service and partners in the snow leopard range team up against illegal trade and poaching of these endangered cats. A new database and improved information sharing on snow leopard trafficking will help tackle such crimes.

There are worrying signs that poaching and illegal trade in snow leopards might be on the rise in large parts of the species’ range. Thanks to a new partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and support from their Combating Wildlife Trafficking program, we’re launching a new collaborative initiative that will assist the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) – a conservation alliance of all 12 range country governments – to identify trends and target hotspots in the fight to reduce snow leopard-based crimes.

Poached snow leopards on display in a yurt. Photo by Teri Akin.

Poaching for their exquisite fur and highly valued bones has been a major threat to snow leopards across their range. The demand for rugs, luxury décor, and taxidermy, is also reported to be on the increase. Snow leopard bones have allegedly been used as substitute for tiger bones in traditional medicine. A 2015 study has established the presence of snow leopard DNA in traditional medicine products.

A report published by TRAFFIC estimates that 221-450 snow leopards may have been poached annually since 2008 – at least 4 per week, and perhaps as many as one each day. But the real extent of the problem is unknown. The cases that do come to light may only be the tip of the iceberg, as wildlife crime typically has very low rates of detection.

Steel traps, often set out by poachers to capture wolves, can severely injure snow leopards. Photo by SLT

“Our investigators have recorded at least 106 snow leopard skins, along with claws, bones and teeth for sale in markets in Asia, indicating that demand is still a major factor in driving poaching”, says Debbie Banks from the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Currently, there is little information to prioritize which regions have relatively higher rates of poaching and trafficking than others. “Robust and quantitative information on snow leopard crime is largely missing, information is scattered, and data are often not accessible to enforcement agencies in organized, usable formats” says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Director of Science and Conservation. “Along with other partner organizations, we will be supporting GSLEP through collaborations, compile vital crime data, and share it with relevant agencies.”

A wildlife ranger in Kyrgyzstan’s Sarychat Ertash State Nature Reserve on patrol. The new database will help such frontline conservationists focus their efforts. Photo by SLT

To help governments, law enforcement and NGOs win the fight against wildlife traffickers, the Snow Leopard Trust and the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program, with support from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, will create a comprehensive range-wide database on poaching and illegal trade involving the snow leopard and related species through collaborations with organizations such as INTERPOL, Environmental Investigation Agency, Wildlife Protection Society of India and others.

The partners will also create new algorithms to compile additional crime data for filling gaps, and develop new networks to share information with all major stakeholders.

“Such instruments play a critical role in exposing the extent of poaching and wildlife trade. They can reveal the level of sophistication and organization reached by wildlife criminals, and change the perception and knowledge of wildlife crime”, says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, who was instrumental in developing that country’s Database on Tiger Poaching.

“Once the Snow Leopard Poaching Database has been developed”, says Koustubh Sharma, International Coordinator for the GSLEP Program, “we will be able to better pinpoint snow leopard crime hotspots and changing trends.”

Alfredo Phoenix, INTERPOL global wildlife enforcement coordinator, says “the database will be an important step forward in filling the current information gap thereby supporting governments and law enforcement agencies to exchange information and, most importantly, contributing to much needed intelligence led enforcement actions on the ground.”

Fighting poaching and illegal wildlife trade takes concerted effort and knowledge by the global community. This project will help overcome barriers, open up communication, and build collaborations that can make a real difference.

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This project made possible through a grant from United States Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Division of Management Authority, Combating Wildlife Trafficking Strategy and Partnerships program.

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