Report: In the last 16 years, snow leopard numbers have declined by at least 20 percent and the endangered big cat could lose more than a third of its territory should climate change continue unchecked.

It is predicted that climate change could result in a loss of up to 30 percent of the snow leopard habitat in the Himalayas.

Thus, urgent international action must be taken in the face of climate change to save the snow leopard and conserve its fragile mountain habitats that provide water to hundreds of millions of people across Asia, according to the two WWF reports launched on October 23 to mark the International Snow Leopard Day.

“Warmer temperatures could see the tree line shifting up the mountains and farmers planting crops and grazing livestock at higher altitudes, squeezing the remaining snow leopards into smaller pockets,” a press release from WWF stated.

Combined with the ongoing expansion of settlements, mines, railways, and roads, these movements will degrade and fragment snow leopard habitat. They will also increase the potential for conflict with communities, which could lead to a rise in retaliatory killings, as well as increase the number of free-ranging dogs that compete with the big cats for prey.

The WWF report – Fragile Connections – highlights that over 330 million people live within 10km of rivers originating in snow leopard territory and directly depend on them for their daily water supplies. “Climate change could drastically alter the flow of water down from the mountains, threatening the livelihoods of vast numbers of people across the continent.”

Building on WWF’s long history in snow leopard conservation, the new strategy will focus on areas where WWF believes it can add most value to global efforts to conserve the species, including mitigating the threat from climate change, reducing conflict with communities, and tackling poaching and trafficking of snow leopard products.

Sami Tornikoski of WWF Living Himalayas Initiative, said while WWF expects to see a deal at the Paris climate change conference later in December to keep global warming below 1.5 degree celcius, snow leopard will continue to become even more vulnerable and threatened due to climate change.

“Climate change is a looming risk but we can’t concentrate solely on that: snow leopards won’t survive for long unless we tackle today’s threats such as poaching, retaliatory killings by herders, declining prey species and unplanned development,” he said.

“India, Nepal and Bhutan have proven that it’s possible to increase the number of iconic species like tigers and rhinos; together, governments, conservationists and communities can achieve similar successes with snow leopards and drag them back from the brink,” added Sami Tornikoski.

However, there is still a lot that experts need to know about the ‘ghost of the mountains.’ “We only have rough estimates of the numbers surviving in the wild, and we still have much to learn about many aspects of its life cycle, including its mating and feeding behaviour,” the report stated.

Most of their vast range, possibly over 1.7 million km2 of rugged mountain terrain, has never been researched or mapped, and is devoid of conservation efforts or protection. A thorough recent review of scientific studies on snow leopard habitat revealed that just over 200,000 km2 have been covered by either research or conservation activities, accounting for less than 14 percent of the territory snow leopards are believed to inhabit.

The report stated that there is a need to build a more accurate picture of the status of snow leopard population, and establish baselines and indicators for both snow leopards and their traditional prey species so that countries can better assess future changes.

Listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, there could only be as few as 4,000 cats remaining in the wild and about 2,500 breeding adults.

Their current range spans an area across 12 states – Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Tshering Dorji