The snow leopard is working a miracle in the cold and rugged mountains of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China.
Instead of fighting and disputing land rights, as they have done for generations, the people of these countries are coming together to develop better communication and support, and the snow leopard is leading the way.
Why are they doing this? Thank the snow leopard.
Recent meetings among Asian nations have led to proposals for sharing data, coordinating research and creating a large protected area for snow leopards across China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. China and Pakistan are working cooperatively to manage the adjoining Taxkorgan Natural Reserve in China and Khunjerab National Park in Pakistan.
Even better, government officials from all 12 snow leopard range countries met in Kyrgyzstan last fall, promising to better protect the snow leopard.
Known for its beautiful, thick fur, the snow leopard has a white, yellowish or soft gray coat with ringed spots of black or brown. The markings help camouflage it from prey. With their thick coats, heavy fur-lined tails and paws covered with fur, snow leopards are perfectly adapted to the cold and dry habitats in which they live.
An estimated 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards are left in the wild, with 600 – 700 in zoos around the world. Exact numbers in the wild have not been determined due to the snow leopard’s shy nature.
These beautiful animals are elusive, but are occasionally found at altitudes between 9,800 and 17,000 feet in the high, rugged mountains of Central Asia. Their range spans from Afghanistan to Kazakstan and Russia in the north to India and China in the east. China contains about 60 percent of snow leopard habitat.
Although it was once largely ignored because of its nearly inaccessible habitat and secretive behavior, the snow leopard has slowly gained notice as studies have found that it is increasingly threatened.
In turn, this interest in the cats has drawn attention to the human communities of these mountains and the fragility of their ecosystem, particularly their watersheds, which are crucial to the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people in the lowlands.
I first became aware of snow leopards on reading Peter Mathiesson’s wonderful book The Snow Leopard, his account of his two months in Nepal. He was invited along by field biologist George Schaller on his expedition to study Himalayan Blue Sheep — and perhaps catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard. So on September 28, 1973, “two white sahibs, four Sherpas, fourteen porters” assembled to make their way up the Himalayas. He never did spot the elusive snow leopard, only traces of its passing by, but it is a beautifully told tale.
It was around this time that wildlife biologists began to roam the mountains in search of clues about the snow leopard’s mysterious existence. Sometimes going months without a sighting, biologists used indirect evidence — tracks, droppings, stories from local herders — to deduce details of the cat’s life.
As The New York Times explains:
Protecting ecosystems can be a complicated undertaking. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, disease is a serious threat to livestock. Vaccinations have reduced livestock losses and made villagers less inclined to retaliate against the cats for the few sheep and goats they kill. The problem is that vaccinations can result in a rapid increase in livestock numbers — and to overgrazing, habitat destruction, the disappearance of wild prey and, perversely, an increase in the number of domestic animals killed by snow leopards. So villagers must agree to limit their livestock numbers in return for vaccinations.
After many years of hard work, real successes are being seen. For example, 55 communities in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and 65 in northern Pakistan, which is where the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir mountains come together, have recently formed committees to safeguard their resources.
These committees now deploy almost 200 volunteer community rangers to monitor snow leopards and their prey and enforce anti-poaching regulations. In northern Afghanistan, community rangers have helped capture four snow leopards and fitted them with GPS tracking collars to better understand their ecology.
What an inspiring story! Even though many challenges lie ahead, changes are afoot in the high mountains of Asia. And a mysterious, secretive and snow-colored cat appears to be leading them.
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