Climate Change Will Leave Snow Leopards With Just One-Third of Their Habitat

By 2070, the endangered species will be seeking refuge in the few mountain habitats that are left.

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Oct 12 2016, 10:00am

The endangered snow leopard is now in even more danger.

A new study from the University of California, Berkeley, published in the journal Biological Conservation, found that fewer than one-third of global snow leopards' habitats will be safe from the consequences of climate change by 2070.

As habitats in the Himalaya and Hengduan mountains in Asia become warmer, and less inhabitable, snow leopards and other species are at risk. This threatens not only to the longevity of these species, most of which live in and around China, but also to the health of the ecosystem.

"Getting ahead of and addressing these challenges now is imperative for snow leopards, their landscape, and all the unique wildlife those landscapes support," said Juan Li, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation biology professor Steven Beissinger's lab, in a statement.

Snow leopards are native to "the roof of the world", a high-elevation area nearby the Tibetan Plateau, which is heating up twice as quickly as the Northern Hemisphere on average. The study refers to this as the "alpine zone", the area between snow line and tree line, which contracts and expands with the temperature during glacier-interglacier cycles.

Moreover, as "apex predators", which are at the top of the food chain, snow leopards play a vital role in the ecosystem's equilibrium. Getting rid of them would disrupt the balance.

To carry out the study, researchers analyzed the impacts of climate change on the snow leopards' habitat from the "last glacial maximum", or ice age 21,000 years ago, until the late 21st century. Using occurrence records of snow leopards between 1983 and 2015, and a "maximum entropy algorithm," they built a model of the snow leopard habitat, projecting it into 2070.

"Analysis of snow leopard habitat map from LGM [last glacial maximum] to 2070 indicates that three large patches of stable habitat have persisted from the LGM to present in the Altai, Qilian, and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram mountain ranges," according to the study.

These areas should function as refuges from climate change, both in regard to extreme heat and cold, the study said. But rapid global warming in the 21st century will take a toll on snow leopards' ability to adapt to climate change, and further fragment habitats. In one climate change scenario, researchers predicted that 82 percent of snow leopard population in Nepal and 85 percent in Bhutan could be lost.

While the researchers are optimistic about the results of the study, said Li, snow leopard climate refuges need to be protected from human interference.

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