The eastern Pamir plateau in Tajikistan, called the Bam-e Dunya (Roof of the World) at 13,000 feet and higher, is an unforgiving place, especially in winter.
And yet, despite temperature plummeting to -50 Fahrenheit in the winter, people, mostly Kyrgyz herders, eke out a living in this harsh environment, tending to their yaks, sheep and goats.
A Landscape and a Species Between History and Legend
Crisscrossing the valleys and the mountain ranges are game trails: of ibex, moving up and down the slopes, and of argali also known as Marco Polo sheep, migrating seasonally often across political borders in search of better pastures. Traveling quietly and almost invisibly behind the ibex and argali, his main prey base, is the snow leopard. This is the animal whose traits epitomize at best the qualities of this landscape: tough, silent and resilient.
According to local legends, the snow leopard is a pari or mergich, a holy and powerful being, that needs to be propitiated to ensure the success of summer herding and dairy production by the community, as well as the success of hunters. These and similar legends passed from one generation to the other are the reason why perhaps snow leopards have not been entirely eradicated across the region, despite the fact that they have from time to time come into contact with herders and killed their livestock.
Unfortunately when (what are now) the Tajik Pamirs became part of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, many traditional beliefs were lost as local societies witnessed radical changes. As a result many snow leopard-farmer conflicts ended with snow leopards being killed. Between the 1920 and 1960s hunting and trapping of snow leopards for their pelts became popular in the Soviet Union.
Further exacerbating the status of snow leopards in the Pamirs was the devastating civil war that broke out in 1992, after the independence of Tajikistan in 1991. A terrible famine pushed people in the mountains to rely even more on their natural resources, which led to intensive hunting of ibex and argali, leaving snow leopards without their main prey base. Finally, close to the end of the civil war in 1997, demand from China and Russia for snow leopard pelts increased the pressure on a dwindling population.
Our Conservation Work
Snow leopard-farmer conflicts, illegal trade in snow leopard parts, depletion of the prey base through poaching are the reason why Panthera, a US-based conservation organization dedicated to the conservation of wild cats, launched a snow leopard program in Tajikistan. In 2013, thanks to support from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, we have been able to start tackling comprehensively the main source of mortality for snow leopards: retaliatory killings as a result of predatory attacks on livestock.
Local people keep their domestic livestock, especially the sheep and goats, in a mix of small to medium-sized private corrals and larger communal corrals. All these corrals have in common the fact that they either lack a roof structure entirely or have a roof but have a square opening in the roof for ventilation purposes.
What typically happens is that, a snow leopard climbs into the corral, kills the livestock, often tens of sheep and goats at a time, and then is unable to escape. The herder then comes into the corral, surprises the snow leopard, grabs a shovel and kills it. Or the cat escapes through the door while the herder comes in; but then the herder sets a steel-jawed leg hold trap and when the cat comes back the following night he is trapped and killed.
What occurs next is that the herder sells the pelt and the bones of the snow leopard to recoup some of the money lost because of the killed livestock. An intermediary generally buys the pelt and the bones for a few hundred dollars and resells it for a few thousand dollars either in the country or outside depending on demand. Weak law enforcement and corruption compound the problem, making it easy to move snow leopard parts out of the country.
Five rolls of mesh wire, five wood boards, and a bag full of nails and hooks can go a long way to conserve snow leopards. This is approximately the amount of materials required to fortify an existing medium-sized corral by building a new roof structure that is snow leopard-proof. The communities benefiting from the corrals provide the manpower.
Since last year, we have fortified 20 of such corrals. Since then, none of the livestock using these corrals has been harmed by a snow leopard or any other predator (wolves and lynx are the other two livestock consumers). Herders across the Pamirs, that once killed snow leopards for retaliation and to eventually sell their skins, are now our key intelligence gatherers. If there is a depredation event, someone placing traps or killing a snow leopard or asking for a pelt, they inform us and help us confiscate traps and skins.
After seeing a snow leopard in the wild I understood why local legends consider it a holy and powerful creature—there is something magical about being in the presence of one. But holding a dead one in my arms and learning of many more that turn into pets, rugs or “medicine” fills me with a mix of sadness and anger that linger for weeks at a time. But I think of my 11-year old daughter, and her friends, in the US and in Tajikistan, and tell myself that no matter what we cannot let the silent roar of the snow leopard be just an echo of the past.