A new study from the World Wildlife Fund has warned that climate change effects as well as illegal hunting might push snow leopards near extinction, as habitat loss contributed to a 20% decline of their population over the past 16 years.

The WWF estimates that there are only 4,000 snow leopards in the high mountains of Central Asia. Moreover, the report found that warmer temperatures might cause changes in the mountain climates, which would result in conditions that are not right for the animals. About 14% of the snow leopards’ habitat has been researched so far, the report states.

WWF’s Living Himalayas Initiative leader Sami Tornikoski said in a press release that although climate change poses a major risk, there are also other factors that should be taken into account. Tornikoski added that illegal hunting, the declining number of prey animals and killings of the snow leopards also pose major threat to the species.

Snow leopards can be found in 12 countries, but although the land area is large, the populations are divided and estimates reveal that there are no more than 2,500 breeding animals alive.

The radical climate changes might have an indirect effect on the habitat of snow leopards and other species as well, as mountain communities depend on the resources of the region.

Over 330 million people live in areas within six miles of rivers reducing the leopard’s natural habitat.  Moreover, summer rains, monsoons, storms in the winter and permafrost are part of the complex system that form the rivers’ source of over 20 water beds which contribute to water supplies of more than 21 countries.

Researchers from the WWF said that the northern and eastern parts of the snow leopards’ habitat might be the most affected by changing climate temperatures, which would leave China vulnerable. The country is home to the largest population of the species.

According to the report, the increase of temperatures might shift the line of trees higher up in the mountains, making the plans not attractive to snow leopards’ prey. In addition, the shift in tree line might also result in dryer air, water availability timing shift with melting glaciers and permafrost.

Brad Rutherford, executive director of Snow Leopard Trust, told CBS News that conservation of the snow leopard is difficult, as the animals’ habitat is very large.

Two years ago, at the Global Snow Leopard Forum in the Kyrgyz Republic, 11 of the countries where the leopard lives said that by 2020, a total of 20 land areas will be secured officially for the animal to live in. Rutherford added that technology including cameras could help the conservation of snow leopards.

Source: CBS News