A wildlife park on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has welcomed the decision of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to downgrade the conservation status of the snow leopard from "endangered" to "vulnerable."
According to the IUCN assessment justification, the global population of the species is estimated at between 2,500 to 10,000 and there is a projected decline of at least 10 percent over 22.62 years or three generations.
The IUCN red list classifies an "endangered" species as one projected to decline by least 20 percent in 16 years or with a current population of fewer than 2,500 mature individuals.
"It means reliable statistics have been found to prove the improved outlook for the species," said Qi Xinzhang, deputy head of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Wildlife Park. "But they are still not safe."
Qi also said it is too early for conservationists and protection institutions to celebrate as the animal still faces a high risk of extinction.
"Most people in China still know little about snow leopards. We have to work harder to get more people and institutions involved in the protection efforts," he said.
"The downgrade will not hamper the Chinese government or the public's willingness to take action to protect the species," said Zhao Xiang, who is in charge of the snow leopard program at Beijing Shanshui Conservation Center.
Zhao said the high altitude Himalayan habitat of snow leopard is also one of China's most important water sources and the country's most culturally diverse region.
The region is also home to many other rare animals such as Tibetan foxes and manuls, according to Zhao.
"The red list is not the only reason we should protect snow leopard," he said.
"Last September, the IUCN took giant pandas off the endangered list, which boosted the confidence of many people and institutions in China as their protection efforts had gained positive results," said Qi. "We feel the same about the snow leopard."
Qi said more work is required in artificial breeding programs for the species.
Snow leopards are a Class A protected animal in China. They live in the Himalayas in central and south Asia at an altitude of 2,500 to 4,500 meters. They have been spotted in China's Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions.