Secretive as they are, snow leopards are still dying at the hands of humans, according to a new report released today.
Poachers have killed at least 450 of the endangered big cats since 2008, making the level of crime far more serious than thought, according to the wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC and the conservation group World Wildlife Fund. The number could be substantially higher, since many illegal killings in remote areas go undetected, the report adds. (Read about snow leopards in National Geographic magazine.)
That’s bad news for a species that’s down to only about 4,000 animals, scattered across the mountains of Central Asia. Though many snow leopards are poached for trade in furs and bones, herders are responsible for more than half of snow leopard crimes committed, killing the predators as retribution for livestock predation.
What’s more, nearly two thirds of snow leopards’ alpine habitat will likely shrink by 2070 due to global warming, according to another recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation.
Yet there is still hope: Kyrgyzstan, home to possibly 350 snow leopards, is becoming a model for conservation efforts, some experts say.
From Hunted to Protected
Several snow leopards live in Shamshy, former hunting grounds located outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishek.
In 2015, the Kyrgyz government, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the Snow Leopard Foundation agreed to co-manage the region as a wildlife sanctuary.
Turning hunting grounds into a wildlife refuge is uncommon in snow leopard country, and experts believe the unique situation will help because the area is already home to healthy numbers of snow leopard prey, such as ibex and mountain goat.
By protecting Shamshy from all hunting for at least ten years, the prey populations will likely increase, attracting more snow leopards to the area. Additionally, the partnership will employ, fund, and train anti-poaching rangers to patrol the refuge.
Meanwhile, the organizations plan to launch community-based conservation programs in the region’s villages. Herders will continue to be allowed to graze their livestock in Shamsky as well.
So far, there’s some evidence the partnership is paying off—the snow leopard population seems to be increasing in Shamshy, says Kuban Jumabai uulu, director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan.
“Earlier this year, we had found snow leopard tracks and scratch marks on several ridgelines in Shamshy,” says Jumabai uulu. (See “One Snow Leopard Needs a Protected Range Bigger Than Aruba.”)
“Now, [new camera-trap] pictures prove the cat’s presence in the sanctuary.”
Jumabai uulu says there’s more work to be done in the country, as several snow leopards live in unprotected areas of Kyrgyzstan.
In Koiluu Valley, part of the central Tian Shan Mountains, hunters are allowed, though it’s illegal to kill snow leopards. Around 12 herders also use the valley for raising and tending livestock.
In April, Jumabai uulu and his team set up 20 camera traps in the valley, capturing the first-ever pictures taken of snow leopards in the region. (See "Snow Leopards Need To Be Protected ... But How?")
They aren’t just pretty pictures—knowing where the big cats live can help the scientists determine the species’ population density, says Jumabai uulu, also the country program manager for the Seattle-based nonprofit Snow Leopard Trust.
“Kyrgyzstan is like [a] bridge between two large snow leopard ranges, and if we lose snow leopard in this country, then it means the global population will be isolated,” Jumabai uulu says.
“Populations are stronger when they are together.”
Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter.