Snow Leopards find sanctuary in a former trophy hunting concession

Snow leopard caught in a field of wild flowers on camera trap. (Photograph: SLF Kyrgyzstan / Snow Leopard Trust/SAEPF)
Snow leopard caught in a field of wild flowers on camera trap. (Photograph: SLF Kyrgyzstan / Snow Leopard Trust/SAEPF)

The Guardian reports: Since taking office in 2011 the current president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, turned the former Soviet Republic into a center point for snow leopard conservation and research. Just two years ago, Shamshy was a concession for high-paying trophy hunters looking to bag an ibex. Today, it’s protecting those prey animals that snow leopards depend on.

“We are certain about the presence of at least one, perhaps two snow leopards,” Koustubh Sharma, the Senior Regional Ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust, said. “The second snow leopard we are not sure about given a slightly blurry image.”

A couple snow leopards may not sound like much. But with a global population only in thousands and in decline, every individual counts.

Indeed, the images from Shamshy are also the first confirmation of snow leopards in the 454-kilometre long Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range that runs north-south through almost the entirety of Kyrgyzstan.

Adorable ibex kids recently born in Shamshy are caught on camera trap. Without healthy populations of prey animals, like these, snow leopards can’t survive. Overhunting has depleted many prey animals across snow leopard range.

Shamshy Wildlife Range spreads across nearly 200 square kilometres in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too, but even this is barely enough to protect a single roaming snow leopard. Recent research has shown that male snow leopards range over 200 square kilometres and females 130 square kilometres.

“Shamshy itself is too small to be a full home range for a snow leopard, but it can certainly be a part of one, or even several,” said Sharma.

The new protected area is co-managed by the Kyrgyz government, local communities and various conservation NGOS, including the Snow Leopard Trust. The stakeholders share responsibilities, including training and paying wildlife rangers, research efforts, and education programs for locals and eco-tourism.

“Shamshy has a bit of everything—the terrain gradually changes from lush meadows and thick forests along a crystal clear stream to grassland, and finally to steep, rocky peaks covered in glaciers,” Kuban Jumabai uulu, the Director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan, said in 2015. Shamshy is also home to wild pigs, badgers, marmots, red fox, lynx and wolves.

As a part of the agreement, local people are allowed to graze livestock in Shamshy but in a regulated and monitored fashion.

Sharma noted that this innovative model could easily be replicated elsewhere. After the early successes at Shamshy, the Kyrgyz government has reached out to the Snow Leopard Trust with interest in expanding the idea to other hunting concessions.

Snow leopards are currently categorized as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and are threatened by a widespread decline in their prey, killings by locals who often view them as pests, and, probably most grievously, poaching. A recent report by TRAFFIC found that hundreds of snow leopards are killed to feed the illegal wildlife trade every year. It’s an open question how long the big cats could survive under such an onslaught.

The only way to adequately protect snow leopards in these remote mountains is to directly involve local communities.

Debate continues over how many snow leopards remain in the wild. The IUCN estimates there are 4,080 to 6,590. However, recent research based on surveys by 31 snow leopard researchers suggests that number may be a major underestimate. A new population estimate on snow leopards complied by Peter Zahler with the Wildlife Conservation Society and colleagues suggests there are 4,700 to 8,700 individuals across just 44 percent of their range. This means the total global population could be much larger than previously estimated.

“Previous estimates of snow leopard populations were really just guesstimates based on early assumptions about overall range and a general sense of density,” said Zahler. “As research continues to provide better information, we are slowly getting a better sense of numbers.”
The new estimate remains controversial, however Zahler insists that a higher number of animals doesn’t mean the snow leopard is any less threatened or that its population is not declining – only that there may have always been more cats than humans suspected. He pointed to the TRAFFIC report as proof enough for ongoing vigilance.

“Unlike the tiger, which has lost something like 97 percent of its range in the last century, the snow leopard’s high-mountain environment is still relatively intact and connected across this vast range,” he said. “Unlike the African lion, which has seen a 40% population decline in the past 20 years, the snow leopard, if declining, does not seem to be doing so at anywhere near the same rate.”

Zahler also noted that real-world practice has proven that snow leopard prey populations can bounce back quickly if given the chance and that initiatives to save the snow leopard, such as Shamshy, are growing rapidly.

Still, climate change remains a wild card here, according to Zahler. Global warming is expected to hit the high Himalayan region hard, especially in terms of glacier melt. But how that impacts snow leopards and their prey is difficult to say.

“There are so many variables…that predictions are hard.”

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