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Mongolia has released its first nationwide snow leopard survey and the results are hopeful. Thanks to the survey, conservationists now know that Mongolia has about 953 snow leopards, whose numbers have been decreasing due to habitat fragmentation and clashes with humans.
This survey, conducted by WWF-Mongolia and partners including Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust, Irbis Mongolia Center, will be used to advise future conservation efforts to bolster not only snow leopards, but high mountain biodiversity ecosystems as well.
Why This Matters: Snow leopards are apex predators, thus their conservation through better data helps protect their entire ecosystem. Their numbers can also be used as litmus tests for how Himalayan ecosystems are functioning and where stresses lie. Yet warming temperatures threaten the species’ frigid habitat: according to WWF, impacts from climate change could reduce the number of snow leopards by 30% in the Himalayas alone.
The snow leopard’s range isn’t just crucial to the survival of native species, but also the humans who make the region their home. Millions of people rely on these high mountains as a source of water, and if that water becomes threatened by ecological imbalance, humans may face devastating droughts.
Counting Snow Leopards: The survey took more than 4 years from start to finish. More than 40 field surveys were conducted by over 500 workers from partner organizations and local communities. Due to the species’ excellent natural camouflage and solitary behavior, researchers ensured a proper count by collaring 15 leopards and placing 1,475 camera traps across 29 mountains. After 4 years of effort, the survey found that about 953 individual leopards, ranging from 806 to 1127, currently roam Mongolia, spanning an approximately 328,900 square kilometer area of Altai, Sayan, Khangai Mountain ranges.
Gantulga B., Species Officer, WWF-Mongolia, emphasized the scale of the survey.:
“Snow leopard sign survey has covered 406,800 square kilometer area of 10 provinces in Mongolia that snow leopard could inhabit, which is one of the biggest surveys ever done on snow leopards,” he said. “The assessment delivers scientific, robust, and reliable results about snow leopard which is crucial for the effective conservation planning of the species and its home, the high mountain ecosystem.”
An Uphill Battle:Even after the success of the survey, experts say there is still much work to be done. Currently, about 4,080 to 6,590 snow leopards roam 12 countries, but their numbers are dropping due to climate change and poaching, and human development has kept populations apart. WWF-Mongolia works with partner organizations in the area to fight poaching, prevent retaliatory killings by farming communities, and protect ecosystems crucial to water supplies.
Other countries have also taken similar efforts.
Bhutan and Russia have also completed nationwide snow leopard surveys.
All three surveys are in keeping with goals set in 2017 during a summit of The Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program and 12 snow leopard range governments. Under the agreement, all 12 countries must complete surveys of their own by 2022.
For now, WWF-Mongolia and its partners are excited to use its survey to power further conservation.
WWF-US Senior Director for Asian Species, Dechen Dorji, says, “thanks to a highly dedicated team of experts and their four long years of hard work, we can be excited and hopeful for the future of snow leopards in Mongolia. We now know the snow leopard population in Mongolia is stable and can measure future population changes against this baseline.”
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