October 2017: The Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) has elected to use big cats – broadly defined to include tigers, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs and lions – as the theme for World Wildlife Day (WWD) 2018. WWD, held annually on 3 March, the day CITES was adopted, raises awareness and generates action on wildlife conservation. The announcement of the WWD theme came shortly after the conclusion of a ‘Snow Leopard Summit‘ hosted by the Government of Kyrgyzstan and in concert with several other announcements of new snow leopard and wildlife conservation projects and initiatives.

In a press release on the 2018 theme, the CITES Secretariat notes that populations of big cats are declining at “disturbing rates” because of habitat loss, human-wildlife conflicts, poaching and illegal trade. According to CITES, tiger populations have plummeted by 95% over the past century, while African lion populations have dropped by 40% in two decades. Speaking on the theme for World Wildlife Day, CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon said that “big cats will generate the level of attention they all deserve to be sure they are with us for generations to come.”

The Snow Leopard Summit, which convened in August, concluded with a Ministerial Declaration, titled ‘Caring for snow Leopards and Mountains – Our Ecological Future,’ in which the 12 range States of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed to intensify their conservation efforts, including through measures to address wildlife crime and reduce human-wildlife conflict.

In addition, the Snow Leopard Summit had a focus on ecosystem conservation. It held a symposium on science, conservation, and climate change in Central Asia that discussed the broad issues relevant to preserving the climate-sensitive mountainous areas snow leopards inhabit. Further, a main and overarching goal of the range States and one of the first steps of the Bishkek Declaration, is to secure 20 snow leopard landscapes by the year 2020. Issues such as transport, climate, mountains and land degradation all come into play with the achievement of this target.

These happenings were in-step with global momentum to address poaching and illegal trade. In early September, the UN General Assembly once again passed a resolution (A/71/L.88) addressing wildlife crime. The resolution calls for stronger national legislation, law enforcement, and enhanced technology to fight both the supply and demand of illicit wildlife products. These links were initially and strongly drawn for the cases of illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn (see Fanning the Ivory Pyres). Speaking on the draft resolution, which connects illicit wildlife trade with peace and security, the representative of Gabon said that “poaching is currently the fourth most dangerous form of trafficking in the world after drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and trafficking in persons, generating almost $20 billion a year.” Target 15.7 under the Sustainable Development Goal on life on land (SDG 15) also calls for stopping illegal wildlife trade and poaching.

Speaking at the Snow Leopard Summit on behalf of CITES, Scanlon highlighted institutional and legal gaps, as other challenges to conservation. Only two of the 12 snow leopard Range States have legislation that fully meets the minimum requirements under CITES. He announced, with support of the EU, that CITES would organize a legislative workshop in its Central Asian Parties. This would be in advance of the Russian Federation hosting the next CITES Standing Committee in October 2018. Towards these objectives, Tajikistan, with the NGO Panthera and the Hunting Association of Tajikistan, with support from the GEF and UK Aid through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, is hosting a November 2017 a conference and training on ‘Combating Illegal Wildlife Trade.’

Other initiatives were announced after the Summit. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), along with a coalition of partners, launched a regional initiative to protect snow leopards and their sanctuaries. It will be executed by the Snow Leopard Trust and the Secretariat of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme. CITES also announced a partnership with the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, which will organize an international film festival on the world’s big cats, to raise global awareness of the critical challenges facing these species. Finally, following on its commitments, the Range State of India, which hosted the October 2017 Global Wildlife Program (GWP) annual conference in New Delhi, announced, in concert with the UNDP, a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project titled, ‘Securing Livelihoods, Conservation, Sustainable Use and Restoration of High Range Himalayan Ecosystems project (SECURE Himalaya.’ It will address wildlife tracking and ecosystem preservation to conserve snow leopards, including through securing community livelihoods, enhancing enforcement, strengthening community institutions, and improving knowledge, advocacy and information systems for landscape-based conservation strategies.

In concert with these announcements, the IUCN downgraded the snow leopard’s status on its Red List from an “endangered” to a “vulnerable” classification. While welcome news, in that broad minded and multidisciplinary conservation efforts might be working, the IUCN warns that populations continue to decline and face high a risk of extinction. The organization, along with key conservation practitioners, are calling for continued expansion of conservation efforts to prevent “this iconic cat from moving even closer to extinction.” [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]