While tiger poaching is one of the world’s most highly visible conservation issues, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) estimates that for every tiger poached, approximately six leopards are taken, including snow leopards.
An estimate several years ago placed the number of snow leopards in the wild at between 4,000 and 6,000 across the 12 Himalayan countries where it is found. Their numbers today are believed to be significantly lower.
The EIA believes the majority of snow leopard pelts are being harvested in China, Mongolia, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
International Customs agents approximate that a fifth of the estimated wild population of snow leopards on the planet—over 1,000 animals—have fallen victim to illegal trade in the past dozen years.
Unusual for most endangered species, habitat degradation is not the main issue for the leopard’s declining populations. Their two gravest threats, which go hand in hand, are increased grazing which has squeezed out wild sheep and goats, their main prey species, which has led to ranchers and herders killing the cats to protect their livestock. (In Bhutan, predators, particularly leopards, protected by law, are becoming bolder, sometimes even killing cattle in their own pens. The country’s agriculture ministry has attributed wildlife predation as one of the main reasons farmers are abandoning farms and leaving their lands fallow.)
While many snow leopard killings are not motivated for sale in the illegal wildlife trade, inevitably, that is where they end up. A herder who kills a leopard and eliminates a threat to his flock and may also earn a substantial payout for his kill. A vicious cycle that bodes ill for leopards.