FOR centuries, the elusive snow leopards ruled some of the highest peaks in the world, living and hunting at altitudes ranging between 900 to 6,000 metres. However, in recent years, their numbers in the wild have dwindled, and they face danger on multiple fronts. From climate change and the loss of their natural habitat, to falling prey to poachers looking to sell their fur and body parts in the black market, the snow leopard is presently placed under the ‘vulnerable’ category in the IUCN Red List. According to the wildlife monitoring network, Traffic, at least 220 to 450 snow leopards are killed each year by farmers and hunters across Asia. In Pakistan, these majestic creatures can be spotted — every once in a while — in the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, but they have shared a mutually threatening relationship with local populations. In May 2019, for instance, a snow leopard reportedly mauled an eight-year-old child to death in the Galiyat. Then, in January 2020, a snow leopard attacked and injured a man in Swat, before it was shot dead by residents. There have also been several instances of snow leopards feeding on livestock, further angering residents, who kill these large cats to protect themselves and their sources of sustenance.
Beyond survival, though, the animal’s skin and bones hold great monetary value in the illegal trade of animals, and poaching continues under the radar. Most recently, five people were arrested by the Gilgit-Baltistan Wildlife Department after they put up photos of themselves smiling next to a slain leopard on social media. The men confessed to the killing, and mentioned that the female snow leopard lived with her two cubs, whose lives were spared. Despite the remarkable conservation efforts carried out by local NGOs to save the species, and engage local populations in the process, there are only an estimated 300 to 400 snow leopards left in Pakistan. Wildlife authorities must do much more to protect them.
Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2020