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Once a trophy hunting concession, now a snow leopard sanctuary

By Jeremy Hance, theguardian.com

163 days ago   Article ID# 3994529
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Snow Leopard Trust

LONDON, U K (theguardian.com) - Sometimes wildlife champions come as high as heads of state. Since taking office in 2011 the current president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, has turned the former Soviet Republic into a centre point for snow leopard conservation and research. Perhaps the best symbol of Atambayev’s commitment to snow leopards are recent camera trap photos showing the elusive, high-altitude predator roaming Shamshy Wildlife Reserve. Just two years ago, Shamshy was a concession for high-paying trophy hunters looking to bag an ibex. Today, it’s protecting those prey animals that snow leopards depend on.

“We are certain about the presence of at least one, perhaps two snow leopards,” Koustubh Sharma, the Senior Regional Ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust, said. “The second snow leopard we are not sure about given a slightly blurry image.”

A couple snow leopards may not sound like much. But with a global population only in thousands and in decline, every individual counts. Indeed, the images from Shamshy are also the first confirmation of snow leopards in the 454-kilometre long Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range that runs north-south through almost the entirety of Kyrgyzstan.

Shamshy Wildlife Range spreads across nearly 200 square kilometres in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too, but even this is barely enough to protect a single roaming snow leopard. Recent research has shown that male snow leopards range over 200 square kilometres and females 130 square kilometres.

“Shamshy itself is too small to be a full home range for a snow leopard, but it can certainly be a part of one, or even several,” said Sharma.

The new protected area is co-managed by the Kyrgyz government, local communities and various conservation NGOS, including the Snow Leopard Trust. The stakeholders share responsibilities, including training and paying wildlife rangers, research efforts, education programmes for locals and eco-tourism.

“Shamshy has a bit of everything – the terrain gradually changes from lush meadows and thick forests along a crystal clear stream to grassland, and finally to steep, rocky peaks covered in glaciers,” Kuban Jumabai uulu, the Director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan, said in 2015. Shamshy is also home to wild pigs, badgers, marmots, red fox, lynx and wolves.

As a part of the agreement, local people are allowed to graze livestock in Shamshy but in a regulated and monitored fashion.

Sharma noted that this innovative model could easily be replicated elsewhere. After the early successes at Shamshy, the Kyrgyz government has reached out to the Snow Leopard Trust with interest in expanding the idea to other hunting concessions.

“We need to think outside the box,” Sharma said. “We must look at more partnerships between Government and NGOs, where two or more partners bring together their different sets of expertise to make a stronger team.”

He added that even hunting companies might want to consider such models to help recover wildlife populations by closing concessions – and working with partners – for a limited time.

Snow leopards are currently categorised as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and are threatened by a widespread decline in their prey, killings by locals who often view them as pests, and, probably most grievously, poaching. A recent report by TRAFFIC found that hundreds of snow leopards are killed to feed the illegal wildlife trade every year. It’s an open question how long the big cats could survive under such an onslaught.

At the same time, debate continues over how many snow leopards there actually are on planet Earth. The mainstream estimate by the IUCN is just 4,080 to 6,590 animals. However, recent research headed by Peter Zahler with the Wildlife Conservation Society argues that number may be a big underestimate. Zahler and colleague estimate 4,700 to 8,700 individuals across 44 percent of snow leopard range, which means the total global population could be over 10,000 animals and maybe, at best, around 15,000.

“Previous estimates of snow leopard populations were really just guesstimates based on early assumptions about overall range and a general sense of density,” said Zahler. “As research continues to provide better information…we are slowly getting a better sense of numbers.”

Most importantly, camera traps are giving researchers a better sense of where snow leopards actually are – and giving the world the incredible images seen on Planet Earth II. All this was an impossible even 20 years ago for a species notorious for its ability to avoid the human gaze. In 1973, nature writer, Peter Matthiessen, spent two months searching for snow leopards with famed conservationist, George Schaller. He never saw one (though Schaller did), but he entitled his award-winning book about the journey, The Snow Leopard, all the same.

Zahler’s new estimate remains controversial, but he insists that a higher number of animals doesn’t mean the snow leopard is any less endangered or that it’s population is not declining – only that there may have always been more cats than humans suspected. He pointed to the TRAFFIC report as proof enough for ongoing vigilance.

“Really the only way to adequately protect snow leopards in these remote mountains is to directly involve local communities in those protection efforts.”

Still, Zahler describes himself as “very hopeful” for the long-term survival of the snow leopard.

“Unlike the tiger, which has lost something like 97 percent of its range in the last century, the snow leopard’s high-mountain environment is still relatively intact and connected across this vast range,” he said. “Unlike the African lion, which has seen a 40% population decline in the past 20 years, the snow leopard, if declining, does not seem to be doing so at anywhere near the same rate.”

Zahler also noted that real-world practice has proven that snow leopard prey populations can bounce back quickly if given the chance and that initiatives to save the snow leopard, such as Shamshy, are growing rapidly.

Still, climate change remains a wild card here, according to Zahler. Global warming is expected to hit the high Himalayan region hard, especially in terms of glacier melt. But how that impacts snow leopards and their prey is difficult to say.

“There are so many variables…that predictions are hard.”

Other concerns remain, including the fact that 40% of protected areas in snow leopard territory are too small to house a mating pair of leopards – including Shamshy, though such reserves remain important for the species if they connect to other suitable and protected habitat.

Still, unlike many of the world’s species, snow leopards have entire NGOS devoted to their long-term survival and champions in high places. In 2013, President Atambayev convened the world’s first ever Snow Leopard Conservation Forum, which brought together all 12 countries with snow leopards in their boundaries to discuss conservation and research efforts. A follow up conference is scheduled for this year.

“President Atambayev deserves accolades for not only mainstreaming snow leopard conservation in Kyrgyzstan, but also across the range,” Koustubh Sharma said.

If more heads of state acted like Atambayev, the outlook for the world’s wildlife might be that much brighter.

Copyright 2017 theguardian.com   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 163 days ago   Article ID# 3994529

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