NEW DELHI, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Scientists with the World Wildlife Fund warn the snow leopard's habitat could shrink by as much as one-third as the climate continues to warm.
In a new report highlighting the big cat's predicament, conservationists point out that the leopard's home is also the source of clean water for much of Asia.
"Urgent action is needed to curb climate change and prevent further degradation of snow leopard habitat, otherwise the 'ghost of the mountains' could vanish, along with critical water supplies for hundreds of millions of people," biologist Rishi Kumar Sharma, who is leading the WWF Global Snow Leopard project, said in a press release.
As greenhouse gas emissions encourage warmer climates, scientists warn that tree lines in Asia's high mountains will move higher, drawing farmers and livestock grazers into higher altitudes and further squeezing the territory of the vulnerable snow leopard.
The latest estimates suggests fewer than 4,000 snow leopards remain in Himalayas. Even without climate change, the cats face pressures from humans. Over the last 16 years, habitat degradation and poaching have led to a 20 percent decline in the snow leopard population.
Conflicts with humans and livestock are increasingly common in the Eastern Himalays, where habitat fragmentation leaves the leopards without proper hunting grounds and fewer prey. Like other predatory cats, snow leopards are solitary hunters and require large swaths of wilderness to survive.
Desperate snow leopards are compelled to attack livestock. And when they do, they are often killed by farmers. Others are killed by poachers, their body parts harvested and sold in the illegal wildlife trade.
Climate change will exacerbate these problems, researchers say. It will also threaten the water supply for hundreds of millions of people.
According to the new report, 330 million people live within six miles of a river originating in the high mountains of Central Asia. The Ganges, Indus, Yangtze and Yellow all flow from the glaciers of the Himalayan foothills and Tibetan Plateau.
Scientists say a warming climate will disrupt the flow of these rivers. As glaciers melt more aggressively, snowpacks shrink, high mountain deserts become more arid and expanding high elevation forests thwart runoff, the amount and timing of the the flow of water downstream will be threatened.
WWF is currently working with governments and NGOs to protect snow leopard habitat and ease conflicts between growing human populations and wildlife. But more urgent action to thwart climate change is needed, conservationists say.
The latest report urges global governments and businesses to "take ambitious and urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and switch to cleaner forms of energy."