The elusive and beautiful snow leopard is no longer endangered after 45 years, announced the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on Thursday.
The snow leopard has been upgraded to ‘vulnerable’, though conservationists have warned the new classification does not mean they are necessarily safe from extinction.
Poachers still kill the animals for their fur and declining grasslands in their habitat has led to a loss of prey, posing serious challenges to the survival of the Himalayan dwelling animal.
Snow leopards had been listed as endangered since 1972, but the IUCN handed down their new judgement on Thursday after a three-year multi-agency assessment.
It determined there are not fewer than 2,500 mature snow leopards in the wild and furthermore, the number of snow leopards is no longer in steep decline; the two criteria for an animal being considered endangered.
Developing new methods for assessing the cats’ population, experts estimated 4,000 live in the wild, though said that number could, in reality, be close to 10,000.
Peter Zahler, coordinator of the snow leopard program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the research was difficult and required an ‘enormous amount of work in some of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the world.’
Tom McCarthy, head of the snow leopard program at the big cat conservation group Panthera said the change is ‘good news’ but ‘it does not mean that snow leopards are ‘safe’ or that now is a time to celebrate’.
The species still faces a high risk of extinction in the wild and is likely still declining – just not at the rate previously thought.
The Snow Leopard Trust strongly opposes the status change.
It plans to challenge the decision with the IUCN, reports the BBC.
Scientists are unsure whether the snow leopard will be directly impacted by climate change, but they argue the Himalayas are one of the world’s most susceptible regions to climate change.
The snow leopards have benefited from a number of factors, such as an increase in the number of protected areas, as well as stepped-up efforts by local communities to protect the animals from poachers.
Still, the animals are hunted for their thick fur and bones and many starve due to declining numbers of wild prey and grasslands.