It’s night-time in the remote and rugged Pamir mountains of Tajikistan. A snow leopard I am going to call “Bars” is walking below a cliff wall she already passed many times this month. There are interesting scents on this trail and scrapes left by other cats. She sees a new man-made rock wall forcing her to chose a path around a rock formation where some remains of ibex are scattered. There is some strangely shaped piece of metal on the ground. She steps into it. It snaps, sending a shooting pain in her leg, now broken and bleeding. Hours pass. Daylight comes and with it, two herders. Bars is in a rage heightened by her pain. She tries to escape but the herders throw a blanket over her head and a rope that is quickly tightened around her legs. She is transported to a car and thrown into a box. She then travels for hours. Changes cars. Changes hands.
Meanwhile several financial transactions happen. Bribes are paid to silence people who could report the incident. Days later, the box is finally opened. Bars is injected with something that makes her feel dizzy. She is released. She knows she is observed. But she does not have the strength to leap away in the cliffs, to safety. A vehicle thunders toward her. A man in a white camo opens the door of the vehicle and shoots her. Congratulations are exchanged. Pictures are taken with the now dead snow leopard. The hunter is hailed as a hero. Later on, at home, in front of a mesmerized audience, he will describe his epic hunt of a snow leopard, leaving some critical particulars out which could diminish the sensation the narrative generates.
Trophy-hunting of snow leopards
Aside from being abhorrent, the scene I have just described is completely illegal. There is no country on earth that allows snow leopards to be trophy hunted. Unfortunately, this does not stop illegal hunts playing out every winter in Central Asia. In more fortunate circumstances, thanks to the desire of many to see this practice stop, trappers are arrested and cats confiscated and released. The problem is that the demand for bagging a snow leopard trophy exists and as long as such demand persists there are willing and politically connected hunting outfitters ready to satisfy such demand. According to a source in Kazakhstan, at least some of the snow leopard hunts are coordinated through a taxidermy outfit in Moscow in the Russian Federation. Hunts sell for 70,000 USD.
In March of 2015, a photograph of a hunter with a dead snow leopard was published on several social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter. The international conservation community reacted by asking authorities to investigate the matter, including the involvement of the person who appears in the picture. The Kyrgyz and Russian authorities promptly started an investigation which is still ongoing.
George Schaller writes in Tibet Wild that he is “disillusioned by the hunters, who instead of supporting efforts to uphold wildlife laws…respond mainly with a selfish attempt to evade accountability and at all cost maintain the indulgence of killing any animal anywhere”. The people who indulge in killing any animal, anywhere are not your everyday hunter. Neither are they like many of the trophy hunters who are willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money motivated by the desire to reward local communities for their conservation efforts. These hunters lack a moral compass, and pursue activities that not only are illegal but also shake deeper social and ethical norms.
Kathleen Braden, in a recently published paper on “Illegal recreational hunting in Russia: the role of social norms and elite violators”, writes that “VIP illegal hunting, though not a high percentage of poaching cases, sets a destructive tone not only because of direct damage to wildlife sustainability, but also because it contributes to corruption of inspectors and prosecution personnel, cynicism about rule of law, and a discouragement to non-elite hunters.” They are also often behind efforts to open up hunting on new species, even where the data shows sport hunting would be unsustainable. A hunter I know, who is opposed to such back-room deals told me that “money should not be used to open doors that should stay locked”.
Where do we go from here?
Unlike other threats facing snow leopards and other endangered wildlife, this one is particularly complicated to address because those responsible are often untouchable. People working on the ground to expose their transgressions may face personal risk and obstacles to their conservation work. Influential individuals guilty of illegal hunting have evaded justice even in the United States.
Based on all we know about this mysterious species, there is absolutely no scientific justification for allowing sport hunting of snow leopards. It should not happen. But I am not so naïve to believe that science is the answer here. It is also clear that expecting such individuals to discover their inner moral compass is not a solution. My hope is that we can draw widespread attention to their activities so that authorities will act. When the world agrees there is no place for hunting snow leopards, it is time to put a stop to it.