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Snow leopards among the world’s most endangered big cats

Photo: Snow leopards boast the densest fur of all cats, allowing them to survive in the highest mountains of our planet. Source: Mongolia Snow Leopard Project

Publish Date: 28.09.2021

Category: Our contribution to sustainable development goals

Sustainable development goals: 15 Life on land (Indicators)

Researcher from the Biotechnical Faculty takes part in the Italian- Slovenian-Swiss research expedition to the highlands of Asia.

Snow leopards are among the world’s most endangered big cats, yet remain poorly studied due to the remoteness of their habitats. An international team conducted four expeditions to the Altai Mountains of Mongolia to investigate the distribution of this secretive predator and how it is affected by the livestock breeding. In recent years, small livestock industry has grown rapidly in the habitat of the snow leopard, mainly due to the global demand for cashmere, which has negatively impacted both snow leopards and their natural prey. Dr Miha Krofel from the Department of Forestry and Renewable Forest Resources explains: “It appears that the worst affected species in this area are two of the most endangered ones – the snow leopard and the Siberian ibex, which is the former’s main prey and competes with livestock for the sparse grazing in this extreme environment.”

Snow leopards act as apex predators in the mountain ecosystems and are perfectly adapted to extreme alpine conditions. However, their numbers are declining due to habitat loss, lack of prey, climate change, and persecution by humans for its fur and in response to depredation of domestic animals.  Only about 3,000 snow leopards remain, all of them confined to the highlands of Central Asia, where the majority inhabits altitudes between 2,500 and 5,500 metres above sea level. However, even these remote areas are not free of human influence, in particular livestock production.

Globally, livestock production is growing rapidly and displacing wildlife, and this is especially pronounced in the highlands of Asia, where an exponential increase in small livestock breeding has been observed in recent years. This is largely tied to the multi-billion global market for cashmere, the most highly prized type of wool. The increasing demand for luxury cashmere in the developed world provides economic opportunities, encouraging growth in the numbers of small liverstock in Asian mountain areas such as the Himalayas, Tibet and Altai.

The world’s second largest snow leopard population is found in the mountains of Mongolia, especially in the Altai Mountains, but remains poorly studied due to its remoteness and difficult field-work conditions. Therefore, a team of researchers from Italy, Mongolia, Slovenia and Switzerland has recently conducted four expeditions to hitherto poorly explored areas of the Altai to obtain data on the remaining snow leopard population and investigate the impact of the growing livestock production on wildlife. The first results of analyses were recently published in Biological Conservation, one of the leading journals in the conservation science.


Figure: Diagram showing relationships between large mammals and small ruminants in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains. The strongest positive relationship was found between the snow leopard and Siberian ibex, both of which were negatively affected by small ruminants. Snow leopards did not avoid wolves, which in turn were attracted to small ruminants. (Source: Biological Conservation)

The study showed significant impacts of small livestock, observed in all studied areas, including the central parts of nature reserves and national parks. These parks represent one of the last refuges for wildlife where the grazing of domestic animals is supposed to be prohibited. Automatic cameras recorded hundreds of thousands of photographs of animals, among which domestic animals such as goats, sheep, and domesticated yaks predominated. The analysis showed that snow leopards, and to a certain extent the Siberian ibex, avoid areas to which livestock production has spread. Conversely, the presence of small livestock, especially away from settlements, attracted wolves, which regularly prey on flocks that are not sufficiently protected.

The results show that the increase in small livestock production in the highlands of Asia have different impact on different species. It appears that the worst affected species are two of the most endangered ones – the snow leopard and the Siberian ibex, which is the former’s main prey and competes with livestock for the sparse grazing in this extreme environment. While wolves are not displaced by domestic animals, they can also be affected by the increasing numbers of livestock, as they often fall victim to livestock breeders seeking to prevent damage to their flocks,” explained the Slovenian participant of the research team, Dr Miha Krofel from the Department of Forestry at the Biotechnical Faculty.

Based on these results, the researchers warn that the conservation of endangered mountain species may be incompatible with the rapid expansion of livestock production to sensitive mountain areas, and they call for better regulation of free-range grazing, at least in the central parts of the protected areas. They also highlight the importance of effective measures to protect small livestock from wolves and other predators, which could reduce conflicts and consequently the legal and illegal hunting of wild animals.

 The research was partly financed by the Slovenian Research Agency.


Photo: Snow leopards, along with tigers, are currently the most endangered species of big cats. Researchers used automatic cameras to better understand the threats to their conservation. Source: Mongolia Snow Leopard Project




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