Snow Leopards Racing Extinction

We all remember how amazing Planet Earth 2 was just over six months ago, exhibiting some of the most spectacular displays of animal life ever recorded and broadcasted to the public. One particularly memorable scene was the filming of four snow leopards in the wild – something that had never been performed before! This was no easy task however, as there are as little as 3,500 snow leopards left in the wild and it took 16 weeks of filming to capture footage of just 4! Arguably, a feat like this may not ever be repeated again due to the species facing several risks of extinction in the form of poaching, a decrease in prey as well as habitat loss due to climate change. Snow leopards have been listed on the endangered list as far back as 1972 and were thought to have been on a steep decline ever since, facing imminent extinction over the coming decades. 

But good news! As of September this year the species’ risk of extinction has been downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable”. This change in classification was deemed worthy by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who determined that numbers weren’t as low as initially thought. Thanks to recent improvements in documenting the snow leopard population over a three-year period, it was deemed that numbers in the wild may be as high as 10,000 and rate of decline may not be as steep as first thought. Such a reduced decline in populations can be attributed to an increased area protected by local communities against poaching and mitigation schemes to prevent farmers killing the leopards to protect their livestock herds. This new classification does not simply mean that snow leopards are in the clear – not for a while anyway, with numbers still declining and a constant threat from poaching.  

Other animals have made a similar comeback against extinction, notably with China’s dedication towards conservation of the giant panda population over the last 50 years – with current estimates at 2,060. Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to increase in numbers due to their solitary lifestyle in isolated populations, with low birth rates of cubs (even with vets on standby in conservation areas). The  giant panda now qualifies for a “vulnerable” status, instead of being in the red list of “endangered”. Scientists predict now that if it wasn’t for the Endangered Species Act (protecting species from poaching and setting up game reserves), at least 227 species would have died out by now. 

Other species which are now off the endangered list:

  • The Chatham Petrel (2015)
  • The Lousiana Brown Bear (2015)
  • The Delmarva Peninsula Fox-Squirrel (2015)
  • The Steller Sea Lion (2013)
  • The Arabian Oryx (2011)

As with most ecological topics nowadays, unfortunately climate change seems to be one of the largest, present and future, force driving species to the brink of extinction; food chain collapses and large proportions of important habitats are being predicted to be lost by the end of the century. This causes a question to arise: even if we prevent species from becoming extinct, is there a habitat for them to even return to in future? Currently, the IUCN “Red List” of threatened species sits at 82,954, with almost a third of listed species being classified as threatened with extinction. This has even led some scientists to believe that we are in the middle of another mass extinction event, the sixth of its kind, with the most well-known event being the wipe-out of the dinosaurs. 

For anyone who is particularly interested in the success of the Endangered Species Act, or any documentaries relating to the topic, I would highly recommend watching ‘Racing Extinction’. You can find more information on the subject here:


James Deed

Image: World Wildlife Fund