The mountain ghost is walking high up in the Pamir Mountains. The stunning camouflage and gracious movements in deep snows and on rocky terrains make this enigmatic creature almost invisible to a naked eye. This is the Ghost of the Mountains, the name often attributed to snow leopards. And this is his world. But, is it, really?
On their way to extinction
Despite the recent lofty rhetoric on climate change, threats to the environment mean a threat to cold loving flora and fauna. Snow leopards are no exception as, given the rising temperatures, they may have to move upwards, thereby altering the animal’s geography.
Around 250-280 snow leopards living in Tajikistan are threatened by poaching, human-wildlife conflict, inadequate conservation capacity, and weak law enforcement. Decreasing numbers of natural prey due to illegal hunting (of mountain sheep and goats) and fragmentation of their living space because of livestock grazing force snow leopards to look for food elsewhere, thus attacking domestic animals.
Oftentimes, illegal trade is a side effect of retaliatory killing, which is the main threat to this endangered species in Tajikistan. In other words, having killed the snow leopard after it had attacked their livestock, the farmer tries to benefit from selling its body parts.
Where can the Snow Leopard be found?
Snow leopard is one of the biggest species of the Felidae family. Its habitat expands across 12 countries, namely Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. They occupy extensive, pristine habitats; cover long distances, at times across borders. These animals are at the top of the food pyramid and, therefore, can be regarded as the defining species in the Asian highland ecosystem. They prey primarily on mountain sheep and goats and regulate the balance of “predator-prey” ratio.
The excess numbers of herbivores would lead to overgrazing of alpine pastures, which may have adverse effects on other wildlife, as well as on the livelihoods of people living in the highlands. Protecting the Snow Leopards is, therefore, of paramount importance for both preserving nature itself and ensuring people’s means of subsistence. Nevertheless, do we realize how our activities affect the well being of Snow leopards and their ecosystems?
Protecting Snow Leopards at a community level
Since 1975, snow leopards are protected under – and listed as endangered species in – CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora). Of all the 12 range countries, Tajikistan was the last to join the Convention; as the accession process started in early 2016.
Several initiatives addressing these challenges at community level are underway. The U.S. based world organization Panthera has been working towards conservation of the wild cats under peril. In Tajikistan alone, they have been closely working with scientific and government institutions, as well as with local communities to save the species and its ecosystems. Turning local hunters into environmentalists through introducing community-run conservancies has led to increasing numbers of snow leopard in those conservancies. With adequate approaches and resources, this success at the grass-roots level has the potential to acquire a global feature in the long run.
Other measures to preserve people’s livelihoods without causing harm to snow leopards’ well being and ecosystems in Tajikistan could include the replication of initiatives implemented in Nepal by WWF in response to the devastating earthquake that struck the country in 2015. Similar landscape and living patterns could be favorable for introducing climate change coping mechanisms, developing ecotourism and ensuring sustainable livelihoods to avoid conflicts with snow leopard, as well as sensitizing communities towards the protection of snow leopards, and introducing insurance schemes for livestock lost to snow leopards. In addition, the collaring of snow leopards has proved to be a top-notch, albeit costly, technique of tracing its movements, habits, living areas and transboundary corridors.
In Central Asia, each range country can protect its own territory. The movements of migrating animals, snow leopards included, to the unguarded zone of another state means walking towards deathtraps. The nonexistence of safe migration corridors and the lack of coordination and information exchange between bordering states put the migrating animals under imminent threat.
The Bishkek Declaration
Recognizing the importance of these factors, the first step at a high level towards the conservation of these animals and their habitats was taken in 2013, through the Bishkek Declaration on the Conservation of Snow Leopards. The meeting was initiated and led by the president of Kyrgyz Republic, and further followed by the regional workshop two years thereafter, with representatives of the range countries, global environmental organizations and Interpol in attendance. The workshop delegates agreed to develop a strategy to combat illegal trade and poaching of endangered wildlife, including snow leopards.
In the forthcoming August, Bishkek will host the International Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Forum, which is expected to be a milestone on the way to securing 20 snow leopard landscapes by the year 2020.
Fingers crossed that this summit supported by leading global environmental and development organizations will come up with a concrete action plan towards achieving this ambitious, yet crucial, goal.
From adequate herding practices, community awareness, efficient law enforcement, to political will at the highest level, it all comes down to humans to decide which way we go and which ecosystems we sustain. Do we want to be predators? Do we want to be prey? Or do we want to be the helping hand? Maybe one thing mankind is short of realizing is that we do not own this planet. And having once invaded, inadvertently or by ignorance, the space of this beautiful species, it is now time we must develop efficient remedial measures before it’s too late.