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A reflection on this International Snow Leopard Day

Posted by: Peter Zahler, Vice President of Conservation Initiatives

Camera trap image of a snow leopard in Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan.
The names are so evocative that they feel fictional—the Himalayas, the Karakorams, the Hindu Kush, the Tien Shans, the Altais—the world’s greatest mountains, soaring above the clouds, blocking global weather patterns, and changing the very nature of the vast continent of Asia.

In and among these enormous mountains, villagers have scratched out a living carving tiny farm plots out of the precipitous cliffs, moving their small herds of livestock up and down the steep slopes to find pasture. Traders have struggled to drag their goods through the high passes on the historic Silk Routes to sell spices, share ideas, and change the course of history. And of course men have fought wars and built kingdoms in these fearsome mountains, from Genghis and Kublai Khan’s great empires to Britain and Russia’s Great Game global power struggle of the 1800s, to local rulers reigning over individual watersheds, their tiny kingdoms impregnable in their natural rock citadels.

The Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo. 
A remote mountain village in Pakistan's Hindu Kush range. Photo credit: WCS Pakistan.
Above all this bustle of humanity and history, staring down at the ebb and flow of humankind’s struggles in these colossal crags, is the true monarch of the mountains. Watching with its implacable, unblinking gaze is the snow leopard.

This big cat, the color of the clouds that often drift both above and below its high haunts, is one of the more mysterious large mammals on earth. It inhabits some of the most remote, rugged, and impassable landscape on the planet, living in such low densities and being so well-camouflaged that few people who share this mountain landscape—and even the few research biologists who go in search of this elusive predator—ever see one.

 Peter in the heart of snow leopard country. Photo courtesy of Peter Zahler.

After thousands of years of relative stability (if such a word can be used to describe a region of the world where continents are still crashing into each other in geologic slow motion), the snow leopard’s world is rapidly changing—now at human, not geologic speed. The increasing human population, and their increasing livestock herds, are rapidly degrading delicate alpine pastures. Conflict between herders and the predatory snow leopard, which may take livestock, leads to retaliatory killing of this large but shy carnivore. Border fences block movement of wild sheep and the snow leopard itself, while roads are being built into the high mountains increasing access, and extractive industries—especially mining—are following this access and beginning to affect the snow leopard’s home. Hunting of the huge Asian wild goats and sheep—Himalayan ibex, flare-horned markhor, Marco Polo sheep, and others—is increasing. Poaching of the snow leopard itself, mostly for its luxurious pelt but also for the growing market in traditional medicine, has had an impact on the big cat in many parts of its extensive range.

Author with snow leopard pelt, fur shop in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan.
Luckily for the snow leopard, its beauty and mysterious allure have helped drive a concerted effort to protect this emblem of Asia’s great mountains. In 1981, Helen Freeman, at the time Woodland Park Zoo’s Curator of Education, created the Snow Leopard Trust to focus conservation actions on behalf of the rare cat. The organization still works in close partnership with Woodland Park Zoo and is active in conservation in five of the snow leopard’s 12 range countries, building community capacity for conservation, assisting in the management of protected areas, and helping local people improve their lives while protecting the snow leopard and its habitat.

A remote camera image of snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan where our work with Snow Leopard Trust is based. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust. 

Checking on a remote camera trap. Photos by Woodland Park Zoo. 
A snow leopard appears on a remote camera. Photos by Woodland Park Zoo. 
A significant amount of my own professional life has been spent in the snow leopard’s home, helping to save these big cats and the other unique wildlife of Asia’s great mountains. I can say that few places can equal the stark beauty of these peaks or the fascinating, endemic wildlife that make their home high in the clouds.

Those clouds include the great Asian monsoons that boil up off the southern oceans and roll across the plains and up against the snow leopard’s mountains. The monsoons bring torrents of rain to the foothills but rarely penetrate into the towering retreat of the snow leopard, defeated each year by the sheer magnitude of these rock fortresses.

Unfortunately, another weather-related specter is rolling unimpeded into these high mountains. Climate change is impacting these high mountains more than any other area outside of the Polar regions. In the snow leopard’s lofty home, glaciers are melting and retreating at alarming rates, while rain and snow is falling unpredictably, at different times and in different amounts. Delicate high-desert pastures are being altered, wild sheep and goats are struggling to forage, and local people are already finding their lives disrupted by these changes as they face drought and floods that tear away at the land and the social fabric of their communities.

A remote camera image of a snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust.  
The snow leopard’s great highlands are not the only montane region to face the menace of climate change. Here in the Pacific Northwest we face a similar threat. Our own high-mountain glaciers are disappearing, snow pack levels are dropping, and the timing and predictability of weather patterns are changing in ways we are only beginning to understand. Woodland Park Zoo is working to learn and begin planning to lessen the impacts of climate change on wildlife and on our own lives, including how to save high-mountain specialists in the Cascades—the wolverine, lynx and marten—for whom climate change may well be their greatest menace.

Climate change is truly a global threat, and only by working together are we likely to tackle this growing threat successfully. Fortunately, wildlife conservation, including saving snow leopards, crosses boundaries and political positions, and governments have been willing to come together to find ways to help these iconic species. I have seen and participated in transboundary conservation initiatives that have brought together countries that are at extreme political odds with each other, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On horseback in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo. 
This coming week I am going to a conference here in Washington that will bring together research biologists and government staff from the western U.S. and Canada to discuss conservation of the Cascades across the two countries. While I am there the snow leopard will be on my mind, and I will be thinking about ways we can learn about and share new ideas for conservation from one part of the world to another.

Today is International Snow Leopard Day. It is a truly international day, one that unites not just the 12 snow leopard range countries but one that unites us across the globe in efforts to save iconic species such as this mysterious big cat…and in so doing, to save ourselves.

Camera trap image of a snow leopard in Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan.

The soaring, treacherous Karakoram mountain range of northern Pakistan. Photo credit: WCS Pakistan.

Learn more about Washington State Initiative 1631
to help address climate change and set an example for the world on climate action.