A snow leopard in the family-based M-Sayod Conservancy (Photograph by Panthera/M-Sayod/AoS)
A snow leopard couple in the Darvaz range of Tajikistan celebrated Valentine Day and the arrival of the Chinese Year of the Sheep/Goat by feasting on a very special goat, the markhor. 2015, declared at the 2013 Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum, as the Year of the Snow Leopard, promises to be a good year for these elusive cats in Tajikistan, thanks to the management and conservation efforts of conservancies, both community and family-based. Capturing precious images of snow leopards on video and point and shoot cameras may become more common.
Snow Leopards in Darvaz
As I wrote in my earlier blog on “Tajikistan Brings Endangered Wild Goat From the Edge of Extinction to the Peak of Hope“, markhor conservation efforts have not only lead to an increase in the population of markhor but also to a visible increase in snow leopard numbers.
In February 2012, I watched from the Dushanbe-Khorog road on two occasions two different snow leopards hunting markhor. On February 13, 2015, in a nearby spot, rangers of the conservancies Saidi-Tagnob and M-Sayod together with Zayiniddin Amirov of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan watched and filmed two snow leopards cuddling and eating a markhor male.
Mating season for snow leopards in the wild begins sometime in January and lasts through mid-March. Mating snow leopards will travel together for a few days and then part, resuming their solitary lives. A female snow leopard will generally be pregnant for 93-110 days before cubs are born in June or July. When they are ready to give birth, female snow leopards will find sheltered dens and caves. The Darvaz range provides plenty of sites that are hardly accessible to humans. The rangers of M-Sayod, walking in the mountains and deploying Panthera cameras for anti-poaching purposes, make sure that no markhor or snow leopards is harmed.
While M-Sayod and the nearby Hazratisho range conservancies (Muhofiz, Saidi Tagnob and Morkhur) are busy protecting the markhor, in the Pamirs, from the eastern Pamirs to the Wakhan and Bartang valleys, another group of family and community-based conservancies have been working hard on conserving another goat, the ibex, and specifically in the eastern Pamirs, the argali or Marco Polo sheep.
The Snow Leopards of Jarty Gumbez
While Panthera’s work in Tajikistan involves supporting the development of community-based conservancies for the conservation of snow leopards and their prey, one family-based conservancy in the Pamirs stands out, not only for the support provided, ranging from moral to logistical, but also for the astounding conservation work that it has been doing since the middle of the Civil War that raged Tajikistan in the 1990’s. The “Murghab” concession in Jarty Gumbez, ran by brothers Zafar and Atobek Bekmurodi, boasts a population of well over 8000 Marco Polo sheep. On any given day, herds of hundreds of Marco Polo sheep can be observed. During my first visit there in 2011 on a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) mission with Peter Zahler, Deputy Director of the WCS Asia Program, we counted 1000 sheep in less then two hours. Needless to say that the number of snow leopards in this conservancy is also very high. A camera trap study conducted in 2012 by Shannon Kachel of the University of Delaware in Jarty Gumbez confirms those high densities.
Rangers in Jarty Gumbez observe snow leopards with their binoculars almost every week in the winter. It is no surprise therefore that occasionally they are easy to photograph, even with an IPhone from a vehicle.
Despite the fact that poaching and illegal trade of snow leopards and their prey continue to threaten the survival of snow leopards on the long-term, these positive heart-warming proofs that many people in Tajikistan take wildlife conservation seriously, are a good omen for this year.