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Illegal trade in pelts causes decline of snow leopards

Random killings by poachers, who benefit from a clandestine trade in animal skins in the Central Asian region and Afghanistan, are threatening the already endangered snow leopard, according to a report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

The report, entitled "Fading Footprints: The killing and trade of Snow Leopards", was the first-ever global assessment of the illegal killings and trade in the animal’s skin, a programme officer for TRAFFIC-Europe and the study’s author, Stephanie Theile, told IRIN from the university town of Cambridge in England.

"Based on the findings of the TRAFFIC report, dramatic declines have occurred, especially in regions where snow leopards are primarily killed for trade [Central Asia and Russia]," Theile said, adding that the report had also aimed to establish the main motivations for the killings.

Snow leopards inhabit the high mountainous areas of Central Asia and the Himalayan region, including Pakistan. Recent estimates suggest there are only between 4,000 and 7,000 snow leopards left in their natural habitat, with illegal hunting and an illicit skin-and-body-part trade threatening to reduce the population even further.

Already a rare species by the year 1970 due to fur and trophy hunting, persecution as a livestock predator, and loss of prey, the snow leopard currently has a fragmented distribution, consisting of a mix of long narrow mountain systems and islands of mountainous habitat scattered throughout a vast region of Central Asia's deserts and plateaus.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two Central Asian countries with reasonably-sized snow leopard populations in the 1980s, now had them in miniscule numbers: Tajikistan now was thought to have between 180 and 220, while there were only between 150 and 200 left in Kyrgyzstan, the report said, adding that both sets of figures represented a significant downturn from the nearly 1,500 snow leopards once found in each country just over a decade and a half ago.

"Regional poverty, combined with insufficient enforcement of the existing regulations and a lack of effective conservation strategies, is the driving force behind the plight of the snow leopard," Theile stated.

Snow-leopard pelts are in high demand in the Afghan capital, Kabul, a fact attributed to the high population of foreign aid workers and military personnel. "Foreign visitors such as tourists, military personnel or foreign aid workers are reported to buy snow leopard parts when visiting local markets in the range states, and hence contribute for the illegal killings," Theile said, adding that visitors would often be unaware that these products were being offered illegally.

The conclusions of the report clearly show that killing for trade is the biggest threat to snow leopards in Central Asia and the Russian Federation. In the Himalayan region, the main threat identified is conflict between snow leopards and herders, who kill the cats to protect their livestock, but the parts then often end up in trade.

In Pakistan, where the average price of a snow leopard’s pelt ranges between US $300 and $400, the report cites a lack of awareness of the animal’s conservation status, as well as a lack of willingness to enforce measures aimed at stopping the illegal trade, as driving forces in the decline in numbers of the species.

"There are between 250 and 400 snow leopards in Pakistan," Ashiq Khan, the chief technical adviser to the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan, told IRIN from Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province.

Model projects and awareness programmes had been set up for the motivation of the community, Khan said, adding that he believed incentives and the enforcement of laws would help stem the decline.

"TRAFFIC hopes that the findings of the report will reach decision-makers in the snow leopard’s range states and will result in clear commitment and concrete actions by governments to increase efforts to conserve this unique cat," Theile stressed.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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