By Stéphane Ostrowski, Ashley Vosper, and Ali Madad Rajabi
In January 2015, a two-and-a-half-year-old female snow leopard was captured near Murghab in the eastern Pamirs of Tajikistan and sent to the main camp of a private trophy hunting concession in the country’s southern Pamirs.
After 18 months in captivity, the Tajik government authorized Panthera, an international conservation NGO, to fit the animal with a satellite GPS and radio collar and release it. Shannon Kachel, a PhD student working with Panthera, tranquilized the 26-kg leopard on July 5, 2016, and equipped it with a GPS-satellite collar.
He found that the female was in good body condition despite its prolonged captivity. The story of this collaring and release can be found in an earlier Nat Geo blog.
Over the next days and weeks the snow leopard, now named ‘Shirin,’ moved north towards the area where it was captured, then turned to the southwest, capturing and feeding regularly on long-tailed marmots.
Tanya Rosen, the director of the snow leopard programs for Panthera in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, then informed the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Afghanistan Program that the leopard had crossed the international border into Afghanistan just west of the Zorkul Lake and made a 10-day-long journey in the southeastern direction.
Around September 20, Shirin reached the mountain range adjacent to the north of Wakhjir Valley in Afghanistan’s Little Pamir. She remained in this area until late October. On November 8th, we received an alarm message from Tanya – Shirin’s satellite collar had stopped emitting. Upon a careful review of the data she shared with us, we confirmed that the last signal had been received on November 1.
Interestingly, Shirin had been less mobile (not moving more than 10-20 meters between two locations five hours apart) since October 24th. Still, we’d previously discovered low mobility events lasting 7-8 days for our own collared snow leopards in the Hindu Kush range of Wakhan. When we visited these locations, they corresponded to kill sites of a large prey – a male Siberian ibex, which can weigh up to 80 kg at the end of summer.
The fact that Shirin’s collar had stopped emitting right after this low-mobility episode was worrying, as it could also mean that she had been injured and had possibly retreated to a shelter where the satellite signals could not be received. Even worse, she may have been wounded or killed by poachers and her collar destroyed.
The remote sensing data revealed that she had last been recorded in a flat area with likely high visibility, with good cover for grazers of undulating Pamir valleys such as Marco Polo sheep. The area was neither a steep rocky location with dangerous slopes, such as found in typical ibex habitat, nor an area with high risk of avalanche.
The WCS team in Wakhan decided to undertake an expedition to visit the last known location of Shirin. This had to be organized in a great hurry as high passes leading to Little Pamir can be blocked by snow as early as mid-November, rendering the area inaccessible until spring.
On November 12, a team composed of Ayan Beg and Shanbeh, two community rangers from the WCS snow leopard team, drove to Sarhad-e Broghil, the eastern-most village in Wakhan that is reachable by vehicle. While passing by the village of Neshtkhawar, they picked-up Ibrahim, a community ranger with good knowledge of the western part of Little Pamir.
Upon reaching Sarhad-e Broghil, they arranged the pack animals for their journey into the Little Pamir. By November 15 they reached Bozai Gumbaz, where they found an autumn settlement of Kyrgyz with two households. During this leg of the walk the weather was clear, but the ambient temperature would drop down to a frigid -12°C in the early morning.
On the evening of November 15, the weather started changing and the team started getting anxious about a possible snowfall. From then on, the expedition became a race against time and the heavy snowfalls that could imprison the team in Little Pamir for weeks or months.
On November 16, the team moved into Wakhjir by horseback, reaching a local winter camp. Moving on to the upper Wakhjir, Shirin’s last known location, they found no sign of her, and no prey remains. The area was silent, vast, and empty. The team split in two and decided to search for Shirin’s radio-collar signal using their multichannel receivers (while the GPS satellite transmitter appeared to be dead, the radio transmitter might still be working).
Soon, one team picked up a signal to the east/north-east, growing stronger as they moved east. Eventually they found a very fresh snow leopard footprint and decided to install a camera trap on the site.
The radio-collar signal, coming from the north, remained very strong for almost an hour. Shirin seemed to be near. But the signal soon became weaker: the elusive leopard was moving out of reach of their receivers.
After the signal became inaudible, the team moved back to the camp. Shirin was definitely still alive and mobile. But when they reached the camp in the evening, the weather had noticeably deteriorated. The wind started blowing violently and the first snow appeared.
The team decided to revisit the last recorded location of Shirin. Upon arrival, the visibility was poor, the wind becoming stronger and colder by the minute.
They searched unsuccessfully for Shirin’s radio signal for half-an-hour, then turned back, retreating fast under fierce winds and snow. Returning to the winter camp location, they packed quickly and continued moving west directly to a Kyrgyz camp.
On November 20, they reached Langar after an exhausting 19-hour walk. In the late morning, they walked down to Sarhad-e Broghil, having narrowly escaped a heavy snowfall.
The race against winter had been lost, but not the battle. The team will return to the Little Pamir in spring, collect the photographs from the camera trap, and search again for Shirin. Her collar will hopefully emit VHF radio signals for many more months.
Stéphane Ostrowski, Ashley Vosper, and Ali Madad Rajabi are conservationists working with the Afghanistan Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Panthera and WCS work together on snow leopard conservation at sites across the Central Asia region.