By PATRICK MAYOYO
This week world leaders began critical talks over the future of the snow leopard and its habitat; the headwaters for rivers that more than 3 billion people depend as a source of freshwater.
The International Snow Leopard Summit and Ecosystem Forum, 23- 25 August in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan is set to see all twelve snow leopard range countries, meet for a second time to strengthen previous commitments to save this beautiful species.
It has been four years since the range countries first met in 2013, when they committed to an ambitious goal of securing 20 snow leopard landscapes by 2020. This has brought the plight of this iconic, endangered species into the spotlight and created hope that this commitment from the range country governments could set an example of conservation success worldwide.
However, as we pass the half-way point, there remains as few as 4,000 snow leopards in the wild and its habitat, which is home to the headwaters of 20 major rivers in Asia and known as the ‘world’s water towers’, continues to shrink.
A joint global petition from WWF, Snow Leopard Trust and NABU, which garnered support from an unprecedented 202,349 people, including Academy Award-winning actor, environmentalist, and WWF board member, Leonardo DiCaprio and actress Megan Fox, calls for increased efforts in tackling major threats to the species.
With high level government officials attending from each range country, the summit provides a unique and rare opportunity to address two of the greatest emerging threats for the snow leopard and its vital habitat; climate change and unstainable infrastructure development. Both of these threats transcend far beyond political borders of countries and need a united approach to succeed.
Recent research suggests that climate change could wipe out more than two thirds of snow leopard habitat in the next fifty years. This, coupled with infrastructure projects which could cut ribbons across many of the snow leopard landscapes, mean the coming years will push the species even closer to the brink of survival.
WWF is also urging countries at the summit to ramp up efforts in tackling levels of poaching and human / snow leopard conflict. A recent TRAFFIC report estimates up to 450 snow leopards are poached every year – part of the same illegal trade which is decimating elephants, rhinos and tigers across Asia and Africa.
Increased conflict between people and snow leopards is due to loss of wild prey and shrinking habitats caused by overstocking of rangelands and worsened by the warming temperatures. Lack of wild prey forces snow leopards to kill livestock and mountain communities often retaliate by killing and poisoning them.
Losing this species will incur yet another tragic loss of wildlife due to human activity and will have catastrophic and cascading effects that will not only damage the natural cycle of life in snow leopard habitats but also threaten the already precarious livelihoods of local communities, as well as jeopardise the health of a major source of freshwater for Asia.
The Bishkek Declaration which will be signed by all twelve range states at the close of the International Snow Leopard Summit, must pave the way for more substantial action in securing 20 snow leopard landscapes by 2020.
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