Snow Leopards of the Altai


For centuries, humans have coexisted with wildlife practicing nomadic or semi- nomadic pastoralism, herding sheep and goat flocks, cattle, horses, yaks, and camels. Mongolia is the world’s leading pastoral nation, with rangelands covering 83% of the country’s 1.29 million km2. Thanks in large measure to the low and sparsely distributed human population and their relative economic isolation, Mongolia and Tibet represent the last stronghold in Central Asia for many species of ungulates and carnivores considered rare, endangered, or declining elsewhere in their ranges, including the snow leopard, perhaps the world’s most elusive and charismatic big cat. With an estimated total wild population of 4,500 individuals, snow leopards inhabit mountainous rangelands at elevations of 3,000 to over 5,000 m in the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau, but as low as 600 m in Russia and Mongolia. This species’ habitat is among the least productive of the world’s rangelands due to low temperatures, high aridity, extreme seasonal conditions, and a harsh climate. Consequently, prey population densities are relatively low.

Often referred to as the ghost cat, the snow leopard is now as endangered as the tiger with perhaps only 4,500 of these elusive big cats now surviving in the wild. With over 3 million years of evolution behind them, snow leopards represent one of the most secretive and efficient predators on the planet. With massive shoulders and a huge tail for counterbalance, they can bring down prey three times their own weight in the most extreme mountain environments on earth.

Besides its naturally low density, the primary challenges for conservationists are the snow leopards elusive and cryptic behavior, large home range, and dependence upon ungulate prey populations that are declining. With the depletion of its prey, snow leopards often resort to killing livestock, in turn encouraging herders to resort to retributive killings.

The predominant land uses and source of local livelihoods in most of the snow leopard’s habitat revolve around traditional pastoralism. While relatively few humans reside in snow leopard habitat, their use of the landscape is pervasive, leading to escalating levels of human–leopard conflict, especially within or adjacent to protected areas where resources are more strictly controlled. Since few, if any, of the approximately 100 existing protected areas situated within snow leopard range are free of human influence, its survival hinges upon an uneasy coexistence with subsistence pastoralists and farmers trying to make a living under the same harsh environmental conditions. Thus, innovative and decidedly participatory approaches for engaging pastoralists and communities in snow leopard conservation are critical to ensure the species’ long-term survival.

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