The snow leopard has been downgraded from an "endangered" species to a "vulnerable" one, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced on Sept. 14.
The classification change was determined based on data received during the IUCN's periodic review of their Red List, a database that classifies species based on their endangerment status.
On its website, IUCN credits anti-poaching efforts, livestock protection initiatives and awareness programs for improving conditions in the snow leopard's habitat range. IUCN warns the overall snow leopard population continues to decline and remains threatened by factors such as habitat loss, reduction of prey population, livestock competition, persecution and illegal wildlife poaching.
The NYT News Service explains that the difference between animals classified as endangered and those classified as vulnerable is small, meaning species have gone from "very high risk" to just "high risk" of extinction.
The lowest population estimate of snow leopards in the wild is about 4,000, according to NYT News Service.
The snow leopard has been classified as "endangered" on the IUCN's Red List since it was first assessed in 1986, the Snow Leopard Trust reports.
Although any reduction in extinction risk may seem like a good thing, the reclassification may serve to make the species' population decline seem less urgent and could reduce opportunities for conservation funding. Charu Mishra, science and conservation director for SLT, disagrees with the new classification.
According to SLT's website, the IUCN invited Mishra to lead the process of reviewing the snow leopard's endangerment status, which began about three years ago.
The assessment of the snow leopard's status led to disagreement among experts involved: One party was in favor of classifying the species as vulnerable, while the other believed it should remain endangered. The IUCN ultimately voted against Mishra's stance.
SLT described the IUCN's criteria for official "endangered" status: There must be fewer than 2,500 reproductively capable individuals and a 20 percent decline in the global population over the last two generations.
"Vulnerable" status requires that there be fewer than 10,000 reproductively capable individuals in the wild and that the species must have declined at least 10 percent over three generations.
SLT points out that less than 2 percent of the snow leopard's total habitat range was surveyed for population abundance.
The NYT News Service reports that even under the new classification, the snow leopard's habitat range -- which includes parts of Central Asia such as Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan -- can shrink by 10 percent in the next coming three generations of snow leopards.
Regardless of classification, experts agree the snow leopard will remain dependent on conservation efforts to improve population numbers and to reduce the threat of extinction.
Sources: NYT News Service via The Times of India, IUCN Red List, SLT / Featured Image: Jean Beaufort/PublicDomainPictures.net / Embedded Images: Snow Leopard Conservancy/Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Protection Department via Wikimedia Commons, Doris Kessler/Wikimedia Commons