The earth during the Last Glacial Maximum some 26,000 years ago was a pretty unrecognizable place. Ice sheets crept down across Canada, stretching from the Missouri River to Manhattan. Massive glaciers on land meant lower water levels at sea, and the islands of Borneo and Bali were still a part of the Asian mainland at the time. Meanwhile in Europe, permafrost blanketed the continent all the way down to southern Hungary.
Wooly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, cave bears, and giant Irish elk roamed the snowy landscapes for thousands of years, until the glaciers receded and the seas rose. Many giant beasts vanished along with their icy world—but not Panthera uncia, our very recognizable snow leopard.
The snow leopard is a survivor. The species branched off from other cats on the evolutionary chart around two million years ago and has managed to live through every geologic warm-up and cool-down since. The question is, can it do so again?
Today the snow leopard is endangered, with fewer than 7,000 of these big cats ranging across a dozen central Asian nations. A study published in the November issue of Biological Conservation assessed the species’ future survival prospects by estimating how much of the animal’s habitat will remain by 2070. Under the worst-case climate scenario, the scientists found that just 50 percent of the leopards’ current range would be suitable for them about fifty years from now. As the world warms, other previously unusable areas might become more conducive to the leopards, though no one is quite sure how fragmented that habitat could be. And here’s the thing about snow cats: They need a lot of land. Another recent study found that each adult male requires a home territory of up to 80 square miles―an area about the size of Aruba.
Well, the data show that since the last ice age (and possibly beforehand), snow leopards have had three huge blocks of territory across the mountains of central Asia, and this habitat won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Each of these snow leopard Shangri-Las provides more than 35,000 square miles for the cats, and one of them, found at the intersection of the Tian Shan, Pamir, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram mountain ranges, spans more than 220,000 square miles.
Scientists call giant tracts of land that remain relatively stable despite large-scale environmental change “climate refugia.” The refuges not only could provide snow leopards with a home, but might also serve as launching pads for future dispersal. In the meantime, though, the world around these sanctuaries will be changing.
As climate change sets in, the rest of the cats’ current habitat will generally move upslope and northward. The upslope shift will probably only hurt the snow leopard. Mountains are only so tall, after all, and once at the top, the cats will have nowhere to go but down. The northward shift, however, presents some opportunities. For instance, the researchers predict that the taiga forests of Mongolia and Russia, which currently lie north of the cats’ range, will gradually shift into the alpine steppe ecosystems that snow leopards prefer.
The challenge now, Weckworth says, is to ensure that these climate refugia are protected from human activities such as grazing and poaching. Luckily, snow leopards have typically inhabited land that is pretty inhospitable to people. These remote, cold, and dangerously steep mountainsides have likely been their saving grace against the human race up until now.
“But human subjugation of the planet is unyielding, and snow leopards are now feeling those pressures,” he says. “There is great opportunity for ensuring this cat’s survival, but it will require incredible effort and sacrifice by human societies to do so.”
Local communities will also need to adapt to the changes hitting central Asia, which may include greater precipitation and mountain tree lines creeping higher in elevation. Such increasingly lush habitats would be more conducive to farming than sheep herding, and the switch could render the current programs that help protect snow leopards—like livestock insurance and vaccinations, as well as predator-proof corrals—irrelevant.
Human conflicts are a lot more difficult to predict than a steadily rising climate, says Matthias Fiechter, communications manager for the Snow Leopard Trust, which also participated in the research. So Fiechter doesn’t see the study’s findings as either good news or bad news. “I think the question that’s relevant is ‘What are we going to do about it?’” he says.
Fiechter says we’ll need to keep fighting for protection everywhere snow leopards still prowl—but especially in the three climate refugia that have so far withstood the tests of time. That would include combating poaching of the leopards in addition to their prey, such as Himalayan blue sheep. Importantly, it will also require environmental education and alternative economic opportunities in communities within big cat habitat.
Despite the climate forecast, Weckworth says these cats are still relatively lucky in the land department. They’re way better off than, say, tigers, which inhabit only a scant 6 percent of their historic range.
So two million years from now, our anthropogenic climate event has a chance of being just one more ripple in Panthera uncia’s long, impressive survival story. That is, if we step up for the snow leopard now.
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