The Social Science of Saving Snow Leopards

By Tom McCarthy, Ph.D.

Snow leopard

Editor's Note: This post, co-authored by Dr. David Mallon, was originally published on Elsevier's SciTech Connect blog. 

Stretching most of the way across the small Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, the Tien Shan (which translates to Celestial Mountains) are a stronghold for the rare and endangered snow leopard. With as few as 4,500 of the shy and elusive cats spread across some 2 million square kilometers and 12 countries, Kyrgyzstan may harbor as many as 400 snow leopards. And there among the craggy peaks a unique social science experiment of sorts is taking place, with the aim of ensuring a future for the big cat.

In the field of wildlife conservation, biology and ecology are often the sciences employed. But when a big predator shares its mountain home with humans, many of them pastoralists, conservation must take on a distinct social science context. One such example is in Kyrgyzstan where Panthera, a US non-profit established to save the world’s wild cats, is helping communities secure the rights to manage local wildlife, reap economic benefits from their stewardship, and ultimately turn former hunters and poachers into staunch defenders of snow leopards and their prey; the wild mountain sheep and goats of Asia’s high peaks. A recent Smithsonian magazine cover story provides detail on this social science approach to big cat conservation.

While the community-based conservation program in the Tien Shan is unique, it is not the only example of how local people are being brought into snow leopard conservation. In fact, it is almost the norm for this species and the myriad approaches are explored in detail in our new book — Snow Leopards — the first volume of the series, Biodiversity of the World — Conservation from Genes to Landscapes, now available from Elsevier/Academic Press.

One of the longest standing community-based programs described in the book is Snow Leopard Enterprises, which was initiated in Mongolia in the late 1990s. In that program, poor herding families have been provided access to international markets for their traditional handicrafts. In turn, they pledge not to kill snow leopards in retaliation for livestock losses to the cats. With over $150,000 in sales a year, and a marked reduction in persecution of snow leopards, it is the epitome of a win-win conservation success story, for local livelihoods and wildlife conservation.

In Pakistan, a livestock insurance program compensates herders for livestock losses, while in Ladakh, India, such livestock losses are reduced by building predator-proof corrals. Where livestock losses to disease far outweigh that to snow leopards, a vaccination program has greatly reduced disease-related deaths, making losses to predators much easier to tolerate. All in all, these and several other novel social science driven conservation programs, tailored to local conditions, are addressing basic human needs while fostering tolerance of snow leopards.

With such innovation and multiple successes on the conservation front, one might think snow leopards are well understood and their future bright.  But as several chapters in our book point out, they remain a mysterious, poorly understood, difficult to study species which face multiple threats across their vast range. And even the extent of that range is mostly unknown!  Covering perhaps as much as 3 million km2 of mountain habitat in central Asia, their actual presence in much of their suspected range is listed only as ‘possible’. Even less is known about population size or trend, with ‘guestimates’ ranging from as few as 4,500 to over 10,000.

Yet the new book includes multiple chapters that explain how such knowledge gaps are being filled, as technological and methodological advances are brought to bear on the enigmatic cat. GPS-satellite collars are helping to answer basic ecological questions on the species, from range size and overlap, to cub production and dispersal. Camera traps and non-invasive genetics, in concert with state-of-the-art spatial analyses, are finally providing robust population data from diverse parts of the cat’s range, many of which are included in the book’s country-specific status updates.

With nearly 200 authors contributing to 47 chapters, Snow Leopards is the first book to bring nearly everything we know today about this iconic cat into a single source. We are certain this book will be of interest to everyone from armchair naturalists, students and range-state decisions makers, to seasoned snow leopard conservationists.

Find this book on the Elsevier Store,, or at your favorite bookstore. 

Learn more about snow leopards and Panthera's work to protect them.