The loss of a moral compass, the loss of snow leopards


Camera-trap picture of snow leopard in the Pamirs Photograph by S. Kachel/Panthera/AoS/University of Delaware
Camera-trap picture of snow leopard in the Pamirs  (Photograph by S. Kachel/Panthera/AoS/University of Delaware)

 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.

Authorities in Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation are investigating the involvement of a Russian businessman in the killing of the snow leopard in the picture
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation are investigating the involvement of a Russian businessman in the killing of the snow leopard in the picture (Photograph from Twitter)

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.

“VIP” Hunting

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.

A US hunter with a snow leopard trophy P
A US hunter with a snow leopard trophy (Photograph from unnamed source on the internet)

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.

Tanya is a Cat Conservationist, member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group and National Geographic Explorer in Central Asia. She is based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her current work is focused on eliminating human-cat conflict across Central Asia, supporting community-based wildlife conservancies and understanding the scale of illegal trade in wild cats and their endangered prey species.
  • fred fep

    The people involved here have lost their moral compasses. This is Holocaust Week, many more lost their moral compasses in the 1930s and 40s. There is a lot of sickness in humanity.

  • Xander Qualls

    This wanton destruction of wildlife is breaking my heart. But I hope all the good people in the world — and there must be more of us than these losers depicted in the photos here — will step up to this challenge to put in protections for all of these magnificent animals.

    One of the good things about the Internet is that now there is more of a spotlight on these “hunters” (a/k/a murderers) and poachers. I’d encourage everyone who reads this story — and similar stories — to widely share on social media and ask friends/colleagues to share. We have to put more emphasis on shaming these people and shifting the mindset so that the widely held belief becomes that there is no room for these violent actions in the age of the Sixth Extinction, the greatest loss of biodiversity since the dinosaurs.

    Peace, light & life

  • Suzanne downie

    Well said Fred and Zander. Seeing the unnessary distruction of these beautiful beings makes me so ashamed . We humans have no right to do this. We need to encourage respect and compassion for all life. I will share!.

  • Anna strong

    Words can’t describe this, such rare rare beauty killed and for what? Nothing, materialistic, blood money muderers, no heart at all.

  • Sibylle Noras

    Thank you for writing this compelling report of an illegal “canned hunt” of a snow leopard. For most of us this is a totally unthinkable act. You raise the most important question. Where do we go from here? Sadly range countries are not doing enough, often for the reasons you have outlined.

    I believe social media has a huge role to play. Previoulsy these hunters only told their stories to a small circle of like minded people who would admire and congratulate them. Today social media can “out” them and shame them. But ultimately it will need more than shame, It will need the force of the law to be applied against people who perpetrate these illegal acts and this is where range country officials must step up. The more they know the world is watching, the more they will be motivated to take the right action.
    Founder and Publisher “Saving Snow Leopards Report”

  • João Paulo Soares

    Poachers should, themselves, be targets — WE MUST KILL ALL OF THEM!!! I wish I could be a hunter of hunters!

  • Krisztina Baumann

    Thank you for the article. I have also seen a documentary narrated by, I can say, the most famous nature documentary maker person of our time. It was made in and around the Himalayas, and the rivers there, but it also featured the snow leopard, and how every animal and plant are in connection with each other, creating a wonderful balance that only nature can create. Unfortunately, some humans – for example who hunt down animals for trophy, etc., or who do not respect nature and its perfect balance – still not yet comprehend how important it is that they stop destroying what nature created. Not only because it is not moral, but also because then they break the balance and oftentimes it is not possible ‘undo’ or repair the damage they had created. Hopefully, as time progresses, and more and more people will start ‘feeling’ nature instead of being overly materialistic, this may change in the good way. To contribute to that, National Geographic articles, and the photos as well, of course, are a wonderful way to make more and more people aware how beautiful nature is and to encourage its protection, so that the balance can be maintained. We humans are part of the balance, yet some humans often disrespect nature, disrespect one another, whereas learning to live in harmony is not as hard as it sometimes seem. Animals know it, hence I cannot see why it would be hard for humans to learn it. Again, I would like to express my gratitude to National Geographic for being an eye opener for many people for the beauty of nature.

  • Asier Lasarte

    Almost a year working in photography projects involving environment and biodiversity conservation show me more clear than ever the reality we are creating. A reality where the only creation is destruction.

  • julia

    The beautiful Snow Leopard .How can any normal person want to hunt them.The photographer of the wicked hunter and the dead snow leopard just shows how evil this is.

  • Ruby Nicklin

    there are not enough hateful words to describe these people. There must be a special place in hell for them for they are not in tune with nature.

  • Random thought

    I hope this illegal hunting stops now! Humans are so vicious, pitiful, and so destructive when it comes to life and that includes the beautiful snow leopard!!! Let’s wipe the grin off the hunters!

  • Random thought

    Wipe the grin off those hunters. Humans are so destructible for anything and any animals. Stop the illegal hunting!


    Please note there is as of October 2017 a viral petition to bring the hunter in the last photo to justice. It was inspired b this article. https://www.thepetitionsite.com/111/531/275/bring-hossein-quotsoldyquot-golabchi-the-us-snow-leopard-poacher-to-justice/

  • Sharon

    @TERA INTERNATIONAL, there is also a petition on Care2’s Petition site, which I recently signed https://www.thepetitionsite.com/111/531/275/bring-hossein-quotsoldyquot-golabchi-the-us-snow-leopard-poacher-to-justice/?z00m=29674855&redirectID=2522564442 … I received an Update today 10-31-2017 posted 6 hours ago by Care2, which was quite disheartening: UPDATE #2 – 6 hours ago
    We’ve been contacted with concerns that the hunt may have happened too long ago to be prosecutable. To our knowledge there is no statute of limitations on international wildlife crime nor do we believe that there was just one snow leopard brutally destroyed. ONE is too many and Golabchi has killed hundreds of animals on SIX continents. To our horror he’s given a step-by-step account of the tragic snow leopard hunt book in a called “Obsessed.” We too are obsessed. Obsessed with seeking justice.

  • Laura

    Cruelty against innocent animal’s! Ain’t right animals have the right to live!!! Prosecution for that Inhumans! !!!!

  • Diane Tindal Harrington

    Stop these awful atrocities!

  • Pamela poehling

    I don’t believe kill an y animals especially for trophies

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