The Snow Leopard’s Shift from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable”: Explained

By Angela Cave and Susie Weller Sheppard

Snow leopard Kyrgyzstan

Today, the snow leopard was delivered a piece of good news: The most respected international nature conservation body re-assessed it from the category of “Endangered” to “Vulnerable.” But many scientists are urging extreme caution, warning that these iconic symbols of Asia’s great mountain wilderness still face numerous threats. Panthera spoke with Dr. Tom McCarthy, Executive Director of our Snow Leopard Program and a member of the assessment team, to break down the implications of the big cat’s status change.

Panthera: What is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species?
TM: Maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it serves as the world’s most comprehensive inventory on the global conservation status of animal, fungi, and plant species. It is the globally accepted, international standard for assessing species’ extinction risk.

Panthera: And how often does the IUCN assess designations for wildlife species?
TM: Species are re-assessed every 5-10 years to determine any change in status, positive or negative. The snow leopard’s status was assessed in 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1996, 2002, and 2008. In each case, it was classified as Endangered.

Panthera: Why was there a recent change in snow leopard status?
TM: Very specific rules must be followed to assess a species’ conservation status. A continuation of the Endangered classification would have required a global population of fewer than 2,500 mature adults and an ongoing decline of 20% over 16 years. The expert assessor team, using the best information available, determined that the snow leopard currently meets neither criteria. The team comprised five international snow leopard experts from three different conservation organizations, including Panthera, Snow Leopard Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society, plus academia.

IUCN scale

Panthera: Recent studies suggest that snow leopard numbers are likely higher than previously thought. Are these figures valid?
TM: Many of these findings are published in a new comprehensive book on the state of the species with contributions from nearly 200 experts. While encouraging news, those involved in the studies warn that our understanding of overall snow leopard numbers is still quite limited, and much effort is needed to refine the estimates. The higher population estimates were NOT used in the assessment; the team took an exceptionally precautionary approach, including using the lowest widely accepted global population size (4,000) when determining if the Endangered threshold could be met.

Panthera: So what does the new status actually mean?
TM: “Vulnerable” is an improvement over “Endangered.” But it doesn’t mean “safe.” In fact, species in this category still face “a high risk of extinction in the wild,” according to the IUCN. The snow leopard is still declining—just not at the rate previously thought—due to human-snow leopard conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation, and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade.

Panthera: What’s the good news?
TM: One of the reasons the snow leopard’s status has improved (meaning that its numbers are declining less rapidly than previously thought) is because of greatly increased conservation efforts. These efforts must be continued and increased to slow or halt the decline in the snow leopard population and a potential worsening of its extinction risk (back to Endangered).

Snow leopard on rock

Panthera: Why are some concerned?
TM: Some believe that a change in status will be misinterpreted to mean the snow leopard has been “saved” and efforts on its behalf can stop. This is why we must stress the risks the cat still faces and ensure conservation efforts continue unabated. It has been suggested that a ‘downlist’ could lead to reduced funding for conservation. To some extent, that is true. Some funding sources are restricted to Endangered or Critically Endangered species. But the potential impact to funding cannot be considered when conducting the assessment. Doing so would be unethical and would call the integrity of the Red List process itself into question.

Others say that only 2% of snow leopard range has ever been adequately surveyed, so we don’t have enough information on population size to make a judgment. But a lack of information would not lead to maintaining the Endangered status. At the time of each assessment, it must be proven that the species still meets the very strict IUCN criteria. Using the best available information, the assessment team concluded that the snow leopard only qualified for Vulnerable. And to reiterate, only the widely accepted lowest population estimate was used in the assessment. We are striving to refine our estimates of population size and broad-scale surveys using scientifically appropriate methods being planned by the snow leopard community at large. But the fact that just 2% of snow leopard range has been adequately surveyed does not mean the change to Vulnerable is flawed due to insufficient data.

For more information about snow leopards and Panthera’s work to protect them, click here.