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The Vanishing Cats

In a recent bit of good news, snow leopards have been spotted at 16 camera traps in northeastern Afghanistan

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snow leopard

A snow leopard caught in a camera trap in Afghanistan (credit: Wildlife Conservation Society)

Yesterday I asked you, the readers, about your favorite predators. Mine, well, that has to be the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). I remember seeing them at the zoo when I was a kid and being fascinated by them, so out of place in America and yet so familiar, like a bigger version of my own kitty.

And so I was happy to see a bit of good news recently about these elusive Asian mountain dwellers: The Wildlife Conservation Society has found a healthy population in the Wakhan Corridor of northeastern Afghanistan, catching glimpses of the animals at 16 camera traps.

But these and many other big cats aren’t doing so well on the population level. Snow leopard numbers have declined by about a fifth in the last 16 years, according to the WCS, and the kitties are classified as endangered. They’ve been hunted for their fur and their bones—prized in Chinese “medicine”—and their prey, mountain goats and sheep, have been overhunted.

Lions are a bit better off, classified as vulnerable, but few live outside national parks or hunting preserves. Tigers are endangered and can be found in only 7 percent of their historical range. Cheetahs, the fastest land animal, have also disappeared from most areas, and scientists now worry that the remaining population lacks enough genetic diversity to remain viable. (And then there are all the smaller cat species that are threatened.)

Domestic cats may be thriving as our pets, but their wild brethren need some help. They have excellent spokespeople, though. For example, filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert, who have spent years following individual kitties in the wild (their talk from last year’s TEDWomen is below). The Jouberts’ observations have shown the same thing that that yesterday’s  study did, that when these animals disappear, whole ecosystems go with them. “If we don’t take action and do something, these plains will be completely devoid of big cats, and then, in turn, everything else will disappear,” Beverly Joubert says in the video. “And simply, if we can’t protect them, we’re going to have a job protecting ourselves as well.”

Next up in Predator Week: Venomous mammals

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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