How a Hunting Reserve Became a Snow Leopard Sanctuary

Kyrgyzstan’s president is taking bold steps to protect a crucial Central Asian population of the cats, long seen as sacred by his citizens.

For the elusive snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan, a satisfying meal consists of an ibex or an argali. As it happens, these wild relatives of goat and sheep—bearers of spectacular, curved horns—are also the quarry of trophy hunters. 

Although a quota system has been in place to regulate the number of animals taken for trophies, until recently intense illegal hunting in Kyrgyzstan has severely depleted these ungulates, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of species. And as their main prey animals have grown scarcer, the numbers of snow leopards, which are endangered globally, have fallen too.

But after President Almazbek Atambayev took office in December 2011, the picture has brightened for Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopards. This March he ordered a hundred-square-mile (260-square-kilometer) former trophy hunting concession called Shamshy, in the northern Tian Shan Mountains, to be set aside as a fully protected natural habitat for the cats.

According to the Snow Leopard Trust, a United States-based nonprofit that works through local communities to protect the animals, mountainous Kyrgyzstan—which offers ideal habitat for the leopards—now holds no more than 500 of them. That’s about 10 percent of the worldwide total, estimated at between 4,000 and 6,500 in Russia and 11 Central Asian countries—a range encompassing more than 800,000 square miles (two million square kilometers).

An anti-poaching team in Kyrgyzstan confiscated this snow leopard. It's estimated that the country's population of the cats has halved during the past two decades.  [PHOTOGRAPH BY CYRIL RUOSO, MINDEN PICTURES, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC]

Saving Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopards is a high priority for the survival of the species. That’s because the country lies between northern snow leopard populations in Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan and the more southerly ones in the Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges. Snow leopards are migratory—known to make long treks out of their home ranges—and Kyrgyzstan serves as a corridor between the two populations. Their intermixing strengthens the overall gene pool.

During the two and a half decades since gaining independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan, like all the former Soviet-controlled nations, has struggled to make the transition from communism. Many state agencies have suffered from a lack of funds, and according to Eric W. Sievers, a political analyst associated with Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies who directed various development projects in Central Asia throughout the 1990s, hunting licenses don’t always go toward conservation. Instead, “local-level observers claim that the funds go no further than the pockets of corrupt officials.”

In these circumstances national parks and reserves have gotten short shrift. Rangers have been underpaid, undertrained, and underequipped, and wildlife laws have been enforced weakly or not at all.

Snow leopards have suffered accordingly. The Kyrgyz government estimates that the snow leopard population has been halved during the past 20 years. And during the three-year period from 2003 to 2006 alone, the argali population fell from an estimated 26,000 to fewer than 16,000.

The main reason for the argali decline, Sievers says, is that “more argali permits were issued to American hunters than national law allowed.” Sievers cites one year, 1996, when 27 argali trophies were imported into the U.S. from Kyrgyzstan. But only 18 permits were issued “in accordance to Kyrgystan law,” according to government archives, meaning that at least nine additional permits were issued off the books.

“Master of Leopards”

“Since time immemorial, the Kyrgyz people have regarded the snow leopard as a sacred animal and as guardians of Kyrgyz warriors,” Atambayev said after taking office. “It is no mere chance that the first Kyrgyz leader received the name of Barsbek, or Master of Leopards.”

It’s incomprehensible, Atambayev continued, “that some Kyrgyz men, descendants of snow leopards, kill the cats and sell their fur to be fashioned into hats and coats. These men can barely be called human. Anyone who shoots a snow leopard shoots his own people. Anyone who sells snow leopard skins sells his own land.”

The new protected area should go a long way in helping snow leopards thrive, says Charudutt Mishra, acting executive director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

“Wild ungulates are the key prey for the snow leopard. Wherever their numbers are dwindling, if they’re hunted in an unsustainable way,” he says, “the number of snow leopards drops as well. So we’re trying to protect prey in order to save the predator.”

Without trophy hunting, Shamshy has the potential to become a key snow leopard stronghold—if the area's wild ungulate population can be increased. The population, Mishra says, “could double or triple in the next 10 years.”

The Shamshy initiative is managed jointly by the Kyrgyz government; local and international conservation NGOs, such as the Snow Leopard Foundation of Kyrgyzstan; the Snow Leopard Trust; and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, a British charity that provides funding and research support for international endangered wildlife projects.

The reserve is not far from the nation’s capital, Bishkek, making it an easy-in, easy-out for international researchers. And a lure for ecotourists: It’s spectacular territory for anyone hoping to spot one of the world’s most endangered big cats.

“The Shamshy partners will also work with local people in the surrounding region to initiate community-based programs and strengthen their support for conservation,” says Siri Okamoto, development director at the Snow Leopard Trust.

Breaking with the Past

Sally Case, who heads the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, says that five years ago “if you’d broached the idea of taking over a hunting reserve in Kyrgyzstan, local experts would have said it was improbable.”

“Now,” she says, “it’s like night and day—and Mr. Atambayev is the reason for this new drive.”

In 2013 Atambayev hosted a conference in the capital for all 12 snow leopard-range states, which under the Bishkek Declaration resulted in the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program. This multinational effort aims, among other things, to ensure that “snow leopards and the people who live among them thrive in healthy ecosystems that contribute to the prosperity and well-being of the range countries.”

The declaration pledges to “set a solid and measurable goal” by 2020 that would commit all the range countries to work together to identify and secure at least 20 healthy landscapes across the snow leopard’s range.

In 2014 the Kyrgyz government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Snow Leopard Foundation of Kyrgyzstan, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation to enhance snow leopard conservation during the next decade.

One piece of it is the Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program, aimed at encouraging rangers and members of the local community to apprehend poachers and law-breakers. The program has already begun to stanch overhunting of wild ungulates, and it played into Atambayev’s conversion of Shamshy from a hunting concession to a nature reserve.

“Now, with an agreement in-hand for managing this concession,” Okamoto wrote in Wildlife Matters, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s magazine, “we are fully confident that all political support is in place to make this project stable—in fact the government is very keen to test this model, so the pressure and impetus is coming from them as much as us.”

If the Shamshy initiative is successful, Case says, “there’s an adjoining reserve which the government would also like the team to manage—a prime parcel of snow leopard habitat ready and waiting for further expansion.”

She adds: “The very concept of taking over a hunting concession is novel for both the Snow Leopard Trust and the government of Kyrgyzstan. The concession hasn’t been used or monitored before for wildlife conservation. This is a very exciting initiative.”

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