The snow leopard is a keystone species, most beautiful among cats, typically found at an elevation of 3,000 to 4,000 metres above sea level. They are vital components of the biologically rich yet often neglected alpine ecosystems of Central and South Asia. The species is often found in open non-coniferous forests and high altitude pastures. However, given the rapid degradation of its habitat, the species has an estimated global population of less than 2,500 mature breeding males.
Snow leopards have long, thick fur and their base colour varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with whitish under parts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their bodies, with small spots of the same colour on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tails. Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale green or grey in colour.
Sources suggest that in Pakistan, over 81,000 square kilometres of area in the Karakoram ranges, the Hindu Kush ranges and the Western Himalayan mountain ranges is the potential habitat of the snow leopard, with an approximate population of 400-450 animals, mostly concentrated in the upper reaches of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The snow leopard has a habit of following definite tracks and sometimes the local communities are successful in capturing them by digging pit traps on regularly used paths.
Poaching, declining prey populations, rangeland overuse, competition with livestock, and retributive killing are the main factors behind the species continuing decline. However, the biggest threat to this shy and rare species is from humans who suffer its attacks on their livestock and in retaliation kill the cat.
The World Wide Fund-Pakistan, in collaboration with provincial wildlife departments, local communities and conservation organisations, is striving to create awareness among local communities regarding its conservation value and ecological significance in maintaining balance of the ecosystem.
With the passage of time, government departments and other organisations are also getting aware of its importance and taking measures to protect it from extinction. Community level interactions have been proved fruitful and people are now cooperating to protect it from various threats. WWF-Pakistan through its limited resources is taking every possible measure to protect it from various threats and rehabilitate it in its natural habitat. Many efforts have borne fruit and it can be hoped that gradually snow leopard conservation awareness be created among the masses and ways to secure their future ensured.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2014.
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