Snow leopards have historically roamed the high mountain ranges of Central Asia, but a high demand for their pelts and body parts, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, has caused the population numbers to plummet. In 1972, the World Conservation Union placed the snow leopard on the endangered species list, but the illegal poaching continues and there are now as few as 4,000 left in the wild. New threats have come from killings by herders, who have moved their flocks into the snow leopard's habitat, and climate change. While snow leopards are seen as resilient to direct impacts of climate change such as rising temperatures and drought because they need little water and can tolerate a range of temperatures, the encroachment by herders is a dangerous indirect impact. They are moving into snow leopard territory to find more grassland for their herds of sheep and goats and sometimes kill the snow leopards who threaten those flocks. In Mongolia, for example, the average annual temperature has climbed 3.8 degrees in the last 30 years, sending sheep and goat herders further into the mountains, creating conflict with the snow leopards.
According to National Geographic and WWF, if climate change isn't slowed, more than a third of the snow leopard's habitat could become unsuitable for the species. Parts of the snow leopard's habitat are covered in permafrost, which is threatened by global warming and the eastern and northern parts of the snow leopard's range (see map below) have been identified as the most vulnerable to broad-scale impact. Along the eastern part of the snow leopard's habitat, in particular, the treeline is shifting higher as temperatures rise. Snow leopards prefer to live above the treeline, so this means their habitat is shrinking.
The Snow Leopard's Range
The snow leopard's range spans from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and Russia in the north to India and China in the east.
About This Species
Snow leopards have evolved to thrive in their home in the high, rugged mountains. They're solitary animals and fierce predators, capable of killing prey three times their weight. Their thick fur insulates them from extreme weather and has a pattern that's unique to each individual animal.