Hiking in the hills of northern Pakistan in the 1970s, WCS Senior Conservationist George Schaller spotted a snow leopard some 150 feet away. "Wisps of clouds swirled around," he later wrote in Stones of Silence, "transforming her into a ghost creature, part myth and part reality."
Today, the snow leopard remains ghost-like—only 4,000 to 10,000 animals are left, stretched across one of the planet's last great wildernesses, the vast hills of Asia, which cover about 3 million square kilometers.
Although the snow leopard recently had its status changed by IUCN from Endangered to Vulnerable, snow leopard populations may still be dwindling across parts of their range. Poaching, both for its skin and for traditional medicine, is a growing threat. So is the loss of its natural prey species (mostly large wild mountain goats and sheep), damage to its fragile, high-elevation habitat, and a lack of awareness amongst local communities and governments of the snow leopard's status and threats.
With focused conservation on its behalf, help this iconic big cat survive myriad threats.
WCS has long been a global leader in snow leopard conservation, beginning with Dr. Schaller's wildlife surveys on snow leopards and their prey in the Himalayas in the 1970s, which resulted in his seminal books, Mountain Monarchs and Stones of Silence. His work also contributed to Peter Matthiessen's book, The Snow Leopard, which brought international attention to the species. In addition, Dr. Schaller's work led to the creation of Pakistan's Khunjerab National Park and he later supported Tom McCarthy in his Ph.D. study of snow leopard ecology in Mongolia, including the first-ever radio collar research on the animal in the wild.
In recent years, WCS has supported snow leopard conservation in six countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Our project activities include focused research using camera traps and satellite collars, community outreach and governance building, protected area development and management, anti-poaching and anti-trafficking initiatives, monitoring, conflict management, and health assessments.
11 of 12 countries
WCS continues to play a global leadership role in snow leopard conservation. In 2008, we co-sponsored the International Snow Leopard Conference in Beijing, China. High-level government officials from 11 of 12 snow leopard range countries were among the attendees. WCS also partners with the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) initiatives in the region, along with the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) and the international Snow Leopard Network.
Conservation Strategies by Country
A Global Model in Afghanistan
With a local staff of 70, WCS has helped Afghanistan write their environmental laws and develop conservation policy, has trained government staff, and has led in fieldwork on snow leopards and their prey—this includes capturing over 5,000 camera trap images of snow leopards and running a satellite collar research project. WCS health work has helped protect and monitor prey species such as the Marco Polo sheep, and our work building predator-proof corrals has helped control human-snow leopard conflict.
WCS has also helped build the capacity of local community organizations and has aided the creation of an overarching community institution, the Wakhan Pamir Association (WPA), consisting of democratically elected representatives from each of the communities in the Wakhan District. WCS and the WPA, with over 50 community rangers, are now working to create Afghanistan's first suite of protected areas in the region, including in 2014 the establishment of Wakhan National Park, protecting roughly 70% of snow leopard habitat in the country.
Protecting Key Habitat in Pakistan
In Pakistan, WCS has created a multi-year program to help protect a significant proportion of Gilgit-Baltistan Province, which is home to the snow leopard and the snow leopard's key prey species in much of the region, the flare-horned markhor. The program, which began formally in 1997, includes wildlife surveys, community-based education, and institution building for resource management. This includes the creation of 65 resource committees and 22 community-managed protected areas covering over 10,000 square kilometers and involving approximately 200,000 villagers, and over 100 community rangers that monitor snow leopards and other wildlife and stop poaching. Poaching in this landscape has declined dramatically and markhor populations have increased by over 50% in the past decade, a great sign for snow leopards.
WCS has now produced over 70 snow leopard cubs at its facilities. Snow leopards born at the Bronx Zoo have been sent to over 30 zoos in nine countries. Recently, Pakistan and the U.S. Department of State worked together to "loan" an orphaned cub to the zoo. "Leo" became a conservation ambassador.
Partnership in China
WCS has partnered with Panthera to launch a pilot conservation project on
snow leopards in the Changtang region of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of
China. Through project implementation, we will identify knowledge gaps
that are significant to effective snow leopard conservation there. Field
surveys will then help us understand the distribution of snow leopards and
high-conflict areas so that we can design appropriate conservation actions
to protect snow leopards and their habitat. Local authorities and
communities will be our key partners to ensure the effectiveness of this
In Uzbekistan, Asking Important Questions
Thanks to a 2013 pilot project, we know there are snow leopards in Uzbekistan. We have the photographic evidence. But the status of the population remains unknown. WCS is now focusing on a camera trap project in the Gissar Nature Reserve. Local rangers employed by the reserve are being trained in how to place, service, and program the traps. This information will help determine the status of this western-most population, and inform how best to ensure that the population receives adequate protection.
February 13, 2017 – A team of scientists reporting in the journal Nature Climate Change say that negative impacts of climate change on threatened and endangered wildlife have been massively underreported.