One Snow Leopard’s Journey

Shirin, the first snow leopard collared in Tajikistan (Photograph by Jura Bahriev/Panthera)
Shirin, the first snow leopard collared in Tajikistan (Photograph by Jura Bahriev/Panthera)

In honor of International Snow Leopard Day, I wanted to share the story of one snow leopard in particular, Shirin, and her incredible journey.

Last winter, I received one of those phone calls that never fail to make me tear up: a snow leopard had been illegally captured and sold in the eastern Pamirs of Tajikistan. The snow leopard, an adult female, had killed a Kyrgyz herder’s sheep, so he trapped it and decided to sell it to a dubious hunting outfitter. Hunting outfitters like these will let foreign hunters pay to trophy hunt snow leopards. The snow leopards are usually drugged in order to make them easier to shoot (see here to learn more about the illegal practice of trophy hunting on snow leopards).

Thanks to the intervention of Zafar and Atobek Bekmurodi, who run a conservation-minded hunting conservancy in the eastern Pamirs (see here), where argali sheep and ibex are sustainably harvested, the snow leopard was freed and the herder arrested. Before being rescued, the snow leopard had spent several days locked in a wooden box.

Because of the long trial, the snow leopard—the “evidence” of the crime—could not be released and was kept captive for over a year. Throughout her captivity, she remained very aggressive and wary of humans. She was fed a diet of wild game: marmots, ibex and argali sheep. Every time I checked on her, her eyes were lit up with a fire and a fierce willingness to live. Finally, in June of this year, thanks to the intervention of the President of Tajikistan, and the support of the Tajik Committee on Environmental Protection and the Hunting Association of Tajikistan, she was released and we were able to equip her with a GPS satellite collar so we could track her return to her wild life. We called her “Shirin,” which means “sweet” in Kyrgyz; while her personality could not exactly be considered “sweet,” her rediscovered freedom was absolutely so.

Marmots, one of Shirin's meals (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)
Marmots, one of Shirin’s meals (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)

For the first few weeks, we followed Shirin’s movements with much apprehension. As an adult female, it seemed likely she would remember how to hunt, but we were concerned nevertheless. Would she find a home for herself in the prey-abundant areas of Zafar and Atobek’s hunting conservancy? The data from her collar and the visits we made to her kill sites confirmed that she was hunting successfully.  Hunting conservancies like these are actually safe havens for snow leopards, even though that may sound counter-intuitive: thanks to the income from the hunts, the Bekmurodi, as well as other nearby conservation-minded conservancies like the Burgut Conservancy in Alichur (see here), are able to invest in anti-poaching activities and meet some of the needs of local communities. The result is that wild prey for the snow leopard is plentiful.

Jura Bahriev, Panthera, and Atobek Bekmurodi, Murghab hunting conservancy, place a camera trap (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)
Jura Bahriev, Panthera, and Atobek Bekmurodi, Murghab hunting conservancy, place a camera trap (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)

Like all snow leopards, Shirin was full of surprises. She went right on through the strictly protected Zorkul area and crossed into Afghanistan through the Big Pamir. After venturing back to Tajikistan briefly, Shirin returned to Afghanistan, crossing the Wakhan corridor and ending up in a side valley teeming with ibex. Though borders, time and space matter to us humans, they mean nothing to snow leopards.

Predator-proof corrals like this one built by WCS in the Wakhan corridor are essential to the survival of snow leopards (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)
Predator-proof corrals like this one built by WCS in the Wakhan corridor are essential to the survival of snow leopards (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen/Panthera)

We don’t know where Shirin will go next. Her survival depends on her ability to stay clear of livestock and herders on both sides of the border. Shirin’s story is one of hope and resilience, but it also reminds us of the many threats facing snow leopards. The days of commercial-level poaching may be  gone for now, but as Nowell et al write in the TRAFFIC report released today, human-wildlife conflict is the primary reason for snow leopard poaching and strategies to improve livestock management, such as building predator-proof corrals and deterring retaliation, must be scaled up. Shirin and her kind need help in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and across their range to avoid situations where the dietary needs of snow leopards clash with the livelihoods of remote communities.

Zorkul lake, where Shirin crossed from Tajikistan into Afghanistan (photograph by Tatjana Rosen)
Zorkul lake, where Shirin crossed from Tajikistan into Afghanistan (photograph by Tatjana Rosen)

Shirin also reminds us that wildlife conservation can truly be a catalyst for collaboration across the borders. On October 23, 2013, the 12 snow leopard range states made a commitment in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic by adopting the Bishkek Declaration; and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) provides a complementary framework for such collaboration.  Just as Shirin ignores those political borders between Tajikistan and Afghanistan drawn on the map, so can we: by finding unity over what fills us with awe and inspiration.

Shirin, where next? (Photograph by Jura Bahriev/Panthera)
Shirin, where next? (Photograph by Jura Bahriev/Panthera)
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.
  • Charlie Linebarger

    It looks like everything is in danger of going extinct in the first decades of the 21st century and that’s not meant as irony but a cruel, cold fact of life and death. In the case of this splendid species what can be done? One thing that comes to my mind is educating the governments that control these snow leopard habitats that snow leopards are worth so much more to the future of their country than any sheep they might be eating today. Like Australia’s Kangaroos and Wallabies and China’s pandas they hold one key to the future in their paws. If we as a civilization get through this century, places where creatures like this still exist will be tourist meccas. Allowing the locals to exterminate them now over a few sheep is as short-sighted as Tasmania’s Tasmanian Tiger hunts in the 1930’s. You have to wonder what they were thinking. Obviously they were not capable of looking into the future even a few decades. Stuck in the dream of turning Tasmania into Dorset or Berkshire they destroyed their most important treasure, the irreplaceable Tasmanian tiger. Kind of like what Zimbabwe has been doing with every animal associated with its being an African country. They have a dream of an African Scotland and to reach it they are willing to sell their last lion, elephant and rhino for a few bucks today. I a quarter of a century parks hosting those animals will be rivers of gold to the countries that might still have them. Once again you have to ask what are they thinking? Not of the future anyway.

  • Vero

    is she the one who was kept in Jorty Gumbez for some time?? would be nice to know that this one is free now!

  • Syber

    Thank you Panthera for sharing that wonderful story. I am weeping with joy. Blessings to Shirin for her hopefully very long future ahead. She will never know that the annoying collar around her neck is helping humans understand and protect her species. Long live Shirin and all the other endangered wildcats. I support Panthera and urge everyone to give what they can!

  • Madi

    I really look up to you, Tatjana. The work that you do with these amazing cats influenced me to do a science report on the endangerment of snow leopards. I’m glad that there are people like you who want nothing more than to save these beautiful creatures. Thank you for sharing Shirin’s story. I’m going to be sharing it in my report, and will be giving the proper citations. You are an amazing person with a great heart. Please continue to protect snow leopards.

  • Robin Housden Jacobs

    Charlie, you are correct. In the future people will be willing to pay dearly for just a glimpse of an endangered species in their wild habitat and those countries that can provide that protection will reap the rewards. Eco tourism is on the rise thank goodness for the animals and plants.

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