UC Berkeley-assisted study identifies viable habitats for snow leopards

Shanshui/Panthera/SLT/Courtesy

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In spite of threats mounted by climate change, a recent study by UC Berkeley, among other partners, has identified three areas of snow leopard habitat that can sustain viable populations through the late 21st century.

According to campus researcher and lead author of the study Juan Li, who works at the Beissinger Lab for conservation biology, a viable population is defined as that which could survive in the wild with low extinction rate from natural disaster as well as environmental, demographic and genetic unpredictability over time. In total, the three habitable regions make up 35 percent of current snow leopard territorya sufficient percentage to provide long-term refuge for the species, Li said.

“Given the species live in these remote regions, we didn’t know much,” said Dr. Byron Weckworth, Snow Leopard Program regional coordinator for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. “(The study) illuminates the large scale implications of climate change on snow leopards.”

Snow leopards have been found in a variety of elevations, from 800 to 5,000 meters above sea level. While climate change affects all species, it occurs at an accelerated speed at higher elevations.

According to Weckworth, warming in High Asia is twice as much as that in North America.

The study, titled “Climate Refugia of Snow Leopards in High Asia,” considered what regions maintained a relatively constant arid to semi-arid climate through past glacial cycles.

Generally, snow leopards live within the alpine zone, a region above the treeline and below the snow line. Through statistical modeling researchers identified three areas of alpine zone that persisted to be habitable since the last glacial maximum and are projected to persist through 2070.

Researchers use both photographic and genetic methods to track the rare cats. Camera tracking utilizes motion sensitive cameras, capturing the leopards’ unique fur patterns, which were then catalogued. By collecting scat, researchers genetically tested the fecal matter and further trace snow leopard populations.

Though the three habitable zones suggest that viable snow leopard populations could survive the effects of climate change through the 21st century, additional threats such as poaching and human intervention were not factored into the calculation of viability.

“The article makes the point that they would survive climate change but maybe not survive these other existing threats,” said John Harte, a professor in the Ecosystem Sciences Division in the College of Natural Resources. “We have to deal with all these threats.”

Snow leopard populations span a total of 12 Asian countries. Researchers concede that the political collaborations necessary to protect snow leopards are a major obstacle but insist that it is not an insurmountable challenge.

“Conservation is primarily a human issue,” Weckworth said.

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.