By Vishal Gulati
New Delhi, Sep 14 (IANS) The highly elusive snow leopard, also found in India’s alpine and high-altitude regions of the Himalayas, got a new global protection and conservation status on Thursday that found favour internationally but was criticised by Indian wildlife advocates.
Indian experts say the decision, which downgraded its status, would pose a greater threat to the species, while their global counterparts say conservation actions must continue and be increased to protect it against climate change and manmade threats.
The Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has changed the big cat’s extinction risk assessment from “endangered” to “vulnerable”, one step down that scientifically means it’s under less threat than perceived.
International wildlife experts have hailed the decision.
They say the new tag would help improving the conservation status of the snow leopard, whose fragile ecosystems spread across the world’s greatest mountain chains — the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan, Altai and other mountain regions of Asia.
However, conservationists in India are not happy with the decision. They say it has downgraded its status and will make the species more vulnerable to human pressures.
As per the IUCN, the “endangered” category lists those species that possess a very high risk of extinction. The “vulnerable” category contains those animals that are likely to become endangered.
Explaining the rationale behind changing its status, Panthera’s Snow Leopard Programme Executive Director Tom McCarthy said for being considered “endangered” there must be less than 2,500 mature snow leopards and they must be experiencing a high rate of decline.
“Both are now considered extremely unlikely, which is the good news, but it does not mean that snow leopards are safe or that now is a time to celebrate. The species still faces a high risk of extinction in the wild and is likely to be still declining – just not at the rate previously thought,” McCarthy, who was a member of the IUCN assessment team, told IANS in a statement.
Indian snow leopard expert Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi did not agree with the IUCN decision.
“The decision has been taken on the basis of a weak, poor scientific assessment. In the past five years, the overall threat perception to this species have increased. In the entire central Asia, mining in its habitat has increased and there has been a lot of construction activities that are pushing the snow leopard to the brink of extinction,” Suryawanshi told IANS.
He has been working in the high-altitude regions of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti and Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh regions to find ways of minimising the “persecution” of the snow leopard.
A study led by him and titled “Impact of Wild Prey Availability on Livestock Predation by Snow Leopards”, published by Royal Society Open Science journal on June 7, said livestock predation by large carnivores and their retaliatory killing is becoming an economic and conservation concern.
Siddhanta Das, Director General of Forests of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had previously been quoted as saying: “Countries have not been consulted and the process is unscientific.”
Founder and Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy Rodney Jackson said the decision to change the conservation status is based on a number of recent studies that used more scientifically robust methods than in the past.
The change in status came after a three-year assessment process by five international experts, including scientists from academia and from Panthera, Snow Leopard Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Society — organisations active in snow leopard conservation.
Echoing this, another expert, David Mallon, said in the past few decades there has been a significant increase in the number of protected areas within the snow leopard range.
Unfortunately, the snow leopard faces numerous threats in the mighty mountains.
An optimistic Wildlife Conservation Society’s Snow Leopard Program Coordinator Peter Zahler said: “Continuing threats include poaching for its thick fur and overhunting of its wild prey.”
“It is important that a change in status is not misinterpreted — this change does not mean that the snow leopard has been saved and efforts on its behalf can stop. The IUCN’s vulnerable status means a species is still vulnerable to extinction,” he said.
Threats — poaching, habitat destruction, loss of prey species — still exist and new threats such as roads, border fences and climate change are increasing, Zahler added.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at email@example.com)