Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Scientists at the International Union for Conservation of Nature have taken snow leopards off the Red List. According to the IUCN, snow leopards are no longer "endangered."
Now, the predatory cats are considered "vulnerable," a less severe classification.
The snow leopard first joined the Red List in 1972, but the species' numbers have stabilized over the last four-plus decades.
In order for a species to be considered endangered, there must be less than 2,500 specimens in the wild or they must be experiencing an extreme rate of decline. A three-year assessment -- featuring input from scientists in academia and researchers from a variety of conservation groups, including Panthera, the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society -- determined the snow leopard meets neither benchmark.
The snow leopard isn't necessarily recovered, or safe, but conservation efforts have succeeded in preserving a significant amount of the cat's preferred habitat. Still, scientists estimate there are less than 4,000 in the wild.
"The species still faces 'a high risk of extinction in the wild' and is likely still declining -- just not at the rate previously thought," Tom McCarthy, executive director of Panthera's snow leopard program, said in a news release.
The snow leopard's range stretches across some of the largest mountain ranges in the world, including the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and Altai ranges, as well as small ranges throughout Asia.
Snow leopards continue to lose habitat and prey, and face the threat of retaliatory killings by livestock herders. Global warming will also likely shrink the snow leopard's range.
"Continuing threats include poaching for its thick fur and overhunting of its wild prey," said Peter Zahler, coordinator of the WCS snow leopard program. "There is also an increasing number of domestic livestock raised by local people in these high mountains that degrades the delicate grasslands, disturbs wild sheep and goats, and drives them into less productive habitats."
Conservationists say more work needs to be done to protect snow leopards from these threats.
"It is important that a change in status is not misinterpreted -- this change does not mean that the snow leopard has been 'saved' and efforts on its behalf can stop," Zahler said.