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Snow leopards are no longer an endangered species; they’re now considered “vulnerable” to extinction. But scientists caution that the big cats are not out of danger, facing threats ranging from poaching to climate change.
The animals got their new designation from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an environmental organization that keeps track of the conservation status of plants and animals. The decision was based on a new assessment that determined that snow leopard populations are still declining, but not as fast as we previously thought, says Peter Zahler, who directs the snow leopard programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and took part in the assessment. And it’s actually long overdue: the IUCN says that because of a miscalculation in snow leopard populations in the past, the species should have been listed as vulnerable as far back as 2008.
Though the announcement is good news, it doesn’t mean it’s time to celebrate. “Nobody is saying that snow leopards are safe and saved,” Zahler tells The Verge. “They’re not doing as badly as we thought, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing well.”
Snow leopards are big cat predators from Asia, where they live in cold high mountains in 12 countries, including China, India, Afghanistan, and Russia. Since 1972, the animals have been listed as “endangered” in the IUCN’s Red List, an internationally recognized standard for assessing extinction risk. To be considered endangered, species have to have global populations of fewer than 2,500 mature adults, and have a decline rate of 20 percent over 16 years.
The new assessment by several conservation organizations found that the snow leopard doesn’t meet the two key criteria, says Tom McCarthy, the executive director of the Snow Leopard Program at Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization that took part in the assessment.
Using improved methods to determine snow leopard populations, the IUCN found that there are more than 2,500 mature adults in the world, with an estimated decline rate of at least 10 percent over 23 years. (Experts now estimate there are about 4,000 snow leopards in the wild, and as many as 10,000.) The last time the snow leopard was assessed, in 2008, researchers used flawed methodology to calculate the number of mature individuals. So the animals might have been faring better for a few years now. “The species should have been listed as Vulnerable in 2008,” the IUCN says.