By Peter Zahler
It would be one of the 10 largest countries in the world. It also would be the 6th least dense country in terms of human population. It is the birthplace of many of the world’s greatest rivers – the Yangtse, Yellow, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya, and others – that provide life-sustaining water to hundreds of millions of people. All of the mountains on earth that soar above 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) – well over 100 of them – are found here.
This huge, remote, and incredible region is the home to the snow leopard.
Stretching for somewhere between two and three million square kilometers, from Russia in the north to Pakistan in the south and east to Nepal, it also almost exactly defines the greatest mountain ranges on the planet – the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan, Pamir, Kunlun, Altais. The snow leopard roams this landscape, the apex predator of its soaring sky kingdom, hunting among the cliffs, boulders, and ice for the giant ibex and markhor goats, the massive argali and the blue sheep.
Shrouded in clouds and mystery, the snow leopard’s world is only just beginning to be uncovered. Although it was known about for centuries, and greatly familiar to the isolated mountain communities that share its home, it was really not until George Schaller went to look for the big cats and Peter Matthiessen wrote about them (and George’s adventures) in the 1970s that the cats entered into the larger international consciousness.
However, our knowledge about snow leopards, little as it may still be, is growing almost exponentially. Multiple research efforts aimed at understanding snow leopard biology and behavior are underway across the 12 range countries. New methods – satellite collars, capture-recapture individual recognition methods for (now digital) camera traps, and a host of other systems have largely replaced the old-style, slogging, binocular-driven field studies.
Those methods were largely ineffective for a creature living in such an inaccessible and difficult environment, that was so wide-ranging and at such low densities, and that was so well camouflaged that photographs of the cats often appeared to be just jumbles of rocks and cliffs, even to the photographer who knew a cat was somewhere in the frame.
Even with these new technologies and methodologies, the huge and remote area that defines snow leopard range means that we still struggle with even the simplest of baselines – an understanding of the total number of snow leopards. However, information is beginning to pile up from new studies across Asia’s mountains. Previous estimates ranged from 4,000 to 7,000; new country estimates put that number at between 7,000 and 8,000; and a number of recent studies suggest that the number might well exceed these totals.
We’re also learning more about the significant threats that face snow leopards. Poaching (mostly for skins) and retaliatory killing (by shepherds after predation of livestock by snow leopards) were long suspected as the leading threat to these big cats, and a just-published study from TRAFFIC supports the belief that this may be leading to a decline in the snow leopard population.
The loss of wild prey, the great mountain goats and sheep that Schaller dubbed “mountain monarchs,” from overhunting and livestock impacts (competition, overgrazing, disturbance, and even disease) is also significant. Development in these high mountains is a slow and difficult task, but new roads are increasing access and the ability for mines and other extractive industries to reach the snow leopard’s home.
The good news, however, is that we are also exponentially growing the number of tools in our ‘conservation toolbox’ to find solutions to these threats. Predator-proof corrals are being built across the mountains, protecting livestock and halting retaliatory killing of these cats. New technologies are also being applied to stop poaching and trade in snow leopards.
WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) is rolling out SMART – an enforcement software tool to better manage anti-poaching patrols – in Mongolia and Afghanistan, and they have also developed a hand-held phone app to help enforcement officers identify illegal wildlife products. Panthera and Fauna and Flora International (FFI) are piloting the use of sniffer dogs to identify snow leopard and other illegal wildlife products by customs and border agencies.
Other projects are building on old systems – WCS now has over 100 community rangers patrolling and monitoring in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, while the Snow Leopard Conservancy works on sacred sites to help preserve the snow leopard and other wildlife of these high mountains.
Perhaps most exciting is that the international community is seeing the importance of snow leopard conservation in terms of helping support not just these big cats and biodiversity but also the marginalized and poverty-stricken mountain communities that live with them.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have joined forces to support numerous projects across the region aimed at helping both the snow leopard and local people. These win-win initiatives are helping to improve local governance, providing incentives for better resource management, and helping to build local capacity to protect mountain wildlife.
Under the leadership of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, all 12 range countries have joined forces under the umbrella of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) and agreed to take action to save the snow leopard. A number of UNDP-GEF funded projects aimed at transboundary protection of the snow leopard and its high mountain environment are now ongoing, yet another way that the snow leopard is bringing countries across this region together.
It is amazing that we still know so little about one of the world’s great cats. However, our knowledge and efforts on behalf of what was once a near mountain phantom are growing, even as the snow leopard helps to bring communities, government, and the international community together. On this International Snow Leopard Day, there is a growing sense that we may be able to save one of the last great wildernesses in Asia, and the great cat that defines it.
Peter Zahler is the Snow Leopard Program Coordinator and Regional Director for Asia at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).