Lose the snow leopards and we lose one of the greatest battles of our time.

A vampire cat that sucks the blood from its prey. A winged beast that carried ancient warriors into battle. A bodyguard for the hero in Kyrgyzstan’s epic poem. The snow leopard’s exploits are the stuff of folklore, myth and legend.

But while these depictions of one of the world’s most mysterious animals may be fantastical, one rings brilliantly true. It is the belief held by the nomadic Wakhi people, who share their high-altitude homes with the magnificent creatures, that snow leopards serve as the guardians of the mountains.

That may sound far-fetched. But trace the mighty rivers that flow through India and Pakistan back to their mountain source and you will find the snow leopard, guarding the headwaters of some of the world’s largest rivers.

What the Wakhi call mountain guardians, scientists call “indicator species”. These are animals, like the snow leopard, whose health tells us about the state of the environment in which they live. When the snow leopard suffers, it is a sign that the mountains and the rivers are also suffering. Put simply, lose the snow leopard and we lose the source of the freshwater that millions of people living downstream depend on.

We are frighteningly close to losing our mountain guardians. Across the snow leopard’s vast range, which extends from Nepal to Russia and from Afghanistan to the eastern tip of the Tibetan plateau, the cat is in decline. Killed by livestock owners, poached for their pelts and reeling from the twin perils of climate change and habitat destruction, the number of snow leopards left in the wild has dwindled. What makes matters worse is that we know little about how many of these majestic cats remain.

Roughly one snow leopard is killed every day. Poaching is partly to blame for the decline and fears are growing that the killing of snow leopards for their thick, smoke-coloured fur is on the rise.  What’s more, more than half the leopards killed every year are hunted down by mountain herdsmen to protect their livestock.

But an even bigger, underlying menace to the snow leopard’s existence is climate change.

Temperatures are rising across much of the leopard’s range, pushing the snow line higher up the mountains. This is shrinking the leopard’s habitat and reducing the abundance of wild prey for it to feed on, making the cat increasingly reliant on livestock for its survival.

To make matters worse, new pastures are appearing higher up the mountainside as the snow melts and weather patterns change. To take advantage of the new grazing lands, herdsmen are pushing their flocks deeper into what was once snow leopard territory, bringing the predator into ever greater contact with humans and their livestock. More and more leopards are being killed as a result.

In addition, new roads, electricity lines, railways, mines, dams and gas pipelines are being built in remote mountain areas where the leopards live, further damaging their habitat and that of their prey.

It is clear what needs to be done. Fortifying livestock corrals with wire mesh roofs will keep the leopards out and reduce the number of cats killed by herdsmen. Paying farmers for the loss of their livestock will also help. So too will ensuring that we minimise the damage when we build new infrastructure.  

But if we really want to make an impact, then we urgently need to confront the damage from climate change. No other threat drives as many snow leopards to their death. We urgently need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere if we want to restore the snow leopard’s natural habitat and bring back the wild prey it feeds on.

Of course, we must also combat the poachers who kill the leopard and its wild prey. This means strengthening law enforcement, improving legislation and toughening up penalties. It also means boosting local economies to remove the financial incentive for poaching. But it’s not only up to governments to act. We can all help eradicate the demand for snow leopard pelts and other products of the illegal trade in wildlife by making informed choices. This means that when we shop we make sure that what we buy isn’t harming wildlife, fuelling corruption or lining the pockets of criminals.

That’s exactly why I’m so excited to join the UN “Wild for Life” campaign on International Snow Leopard Day.  All over the world criminal cartels are selling, smuggling and killing some of the world’s rarest and most beloved species of flora and fauna: from rhinos and elephants to pangolins, helmeted hornbills and sea turtles. This is not only pushing species to the brink of extinction but fuelling corruption and robbing individual countries of their natural heritage. Wild for Life aims to mobilize millions of people around the world to change this.

I chose the snow leopard as my kindred species for the campaign because they tend to be strong willed, independent characters who find themselves in tough situations.  (Sound familiar?) If we lose the snow leopard we won’t just have lost one of the world’s most beautiful, elusive creatures. When we lose the snow leopard we will know that we have also lost the battle to tackle climate change. We will have lost the battle to protect the mountains, and the rivers they feed. Without our guardians, we will all suffer.

We cannot allow this to happen.

Join me by going to  www.wildfor.life today and make the snow leopard your kindred species, too.

Michelle Yeoh, an internationally acclaimed actor and producer, is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme. She is dedicated to raising awareness and mobilizing support for the Sustainable Development Goals, which include ending poverty, fighting climate change and protecting wildlife.