The elusive snow leopard’s conservation status has been improved from "endangered" to "vulnerable," conservationists say.
The decision was announced on September 14 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), following a three-year assessment. Experts determined that the big cats no longer number fewer than 2,500 in the wild and that the population was not in steep decline. These are the two criteria for being considered "endangered."
However, experts warned that the new classification does not mean snow leopards are safe in their high-mountain habitat, which spans 12 countries that sweep across the Himalayan and Tibetan plateaus.
The animals, which had been listed as endangered since 1972, still face serious challenges, including poaching for their fur and bones, habitat destruction, and loss of prey in their habitat.
"The species still faces 'a high risk of extinction in the wild' and is likely still declining -- just not at the rate previously thought," said Tom McCarthy, who runs the Snow Leopard Program at the conservation group Panthera.
"It doesn't take much to make large predators disappear from landscapes,” said Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was also involved in the international team's assessment. “We've seen it happen over and over again around the world."
Being classed as "vulnerable" means a species has under 10,000 breeding animals left, with a population decline of at least 10 percent over three generations.
Using improved methods for counting cat numbers, experts estimate there are currently about 4,000 snow leopards in the wild.
But they said that estimate was based on an assessment that included a detailed survey of only 2 percent of the species’ range.
The U.S.-based Snow Leopard Trust, which aims to protect the big cat through community projects, opposes the status change and plans to challenge the decision with the IUCN.
“We believe the best available science does not justify the status change, and that it could have serious consequences for the species," it wrote in a blog post.
Experts say the snow leopard's decline may have been slowed by conservation initiatives such as the creation of protected areas within the species’ habitat and efforts by local communities to protect it from poachers.