Rare snow leopard cubs made their first public appearance at Basel Zoo in Switzerland. Born eight weeks ago to mother Mayhan and father Pator, the feisty triplets were a treat for visitors. The cubs are still suckling, but have already developed their primary teeth, and according to Basel officials, have taken to shredding dead chickens. The zoo plans for the leopards to travel as ambassadors for their endangered species when they reach age three.
Brought together in 2009, Mayhan and Pator were selected for conservation breeding by the European Endangered Species (EEP) program of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). The EEP provides intensive population management for EAZA zoos. Every year recommendations are made for which animals should breed or not breed. Along with a species committee, the EEP is responsible for managing these recommendations, as well as carrying out demographic and genetic analysis, producing a studbook, and planning future species management. The EEP currently manages over 180 species and subspecies, not including those managed by their separate studbook program (ESB).
Native to the mountains of Central Asia, snow leopard populations are currently estimated to be between 4,000 and 6,000 cats. China accounts for 60% of the snow leopard population. In the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the estimated snow leopard population is between 1000 and 1500, and it is reported that 20 – 30 snow leopards are poached each year. The biggest threat to the snow leopard’s survival is humans. Poachers kill them for their pelts, which can sell for $500 — $2,000. Snow leopard bones are also sold to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (“TCM”) as a replacement for using tiger bones, which were used to treat rheumatism and arthritis. The use of tiger bones was removed from TCM pharmacopoeia in 1993, when China introduced a ban on tiger trade, although this does not account for those who still use the bones illegally.
The meat of snow leopards has also been reportedly used in TCM as an aphrodisiac. In Tibetan Medicine the meat is believed to cure Bad-kan kidney problems. In a report from September 2000, a restaurant in Chengdu allegedly served snow leopard meals at 128 Yuan per dish.
Snow Leopards have also butted heads with herders, who will often trap, poison, or shoot them to protect their livestock.
As humans push further into the mountains with livestock, they infringe upon the grazing territories of wild goats and sheep, which are a staple prey of the snow leopard. Because their own hunting grounds become fragmented and degraded, livestock become prey to the snow leopards. Like so many other cases of endangered species, herders who encounter snow leopards do not understand their important role in their ecosystem and why they need to be protected.
Snow leopards are solitary animals, with a range that covers Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This used to include Mongolia, but the leopards have been eliminated there. The huge, 2 million square kilometer range of the cats makes it difficult for them to be effectively protected; most protected areas are too small to protect the range of even a single snow leopard, and many countries are unable to finance rangers.
About 600 snow leopards live in zoos today. While conservation/education efforts are being made by organizations such as World Wildlife Fund and Snow Leopard Trust, it may be up to programs like EEP to ensure their survival.
Photo credit: fws.gov/pacific/highlights_archive/Feature.cfm?id=13682