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Conservation between Hope and Despair

"Pamir", a cub confiscated in the Madiyan valley from a well-known poacher. His mother was killed and the skin sold. (Photograph by Stefan Michel)
“Pamir”, a cub confiscated in the Madiyan valley from a well-known poacher. His mother was killed and the skin sold. (Photograph by Stefan Michel)

The last few months have been busy for team Panthera in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. On a hopeful note – repeat snow leopard camera trap surveys in the Alichur in the eastern Pamirs have shown a small yet promising increase in snow leopards using the protected conservancy grounds. More predator-proof corrals have been built in the eastern Pamirs, ensuring the safety of domestic livestock in time for the late fall, when snow leopard attacks on corrals tend to increase. (See Facebook page  “Community-based Wildlife Conservation in Tajikistan”). Even so, many challenges remain for this charismatic wild cat.

A New Study in the Hissar Range

In other exciting developments, we also hosted Tara Meyer, a graduate student at Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She conducted a camera trap study in the Hissar range along the border with Uzbekistan, with support from our biologist Khalil Karimov and Zayiniddin Amirov and Komil Saidov of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan. The study of Tara and team yielded the first photographic evidence of snow leopards in this incredibly human-dominated range (See Tara’s Blog posts in SAGE magazine) and complements the findings of Lizza Protas, who supported by Panthera, WWF and partners in Uzbekistan, also came back from the Gissar Reserve in Uzbekistan with camera trap photos of snow leopards (see Panthera press release). These two studies, divided by an international border and yet geographically very close, provide a basis for future transboundary collaboration between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Khalil Karimov setting up a camera trap in the Hissar range. (Photograph by Tara Meyer/Yale University)
Khalil Karimov setting up a camera trap in the Hissar range. (Photograph by Tara Meyer/Yale University)

Breaking New Grounds in Kyrgyzstan

Together with our Kyrgyz partners, Askar, Maksat and Zairbek, working in the framework of the Kaiberen project, we started supporting two different communities in the Alai valley committed to organizing themselves into community-based conservancies to protect the declining population of snow leopard’s ungulate prey, and not to mention the very few snow leopards left there. Nuzar, Panthera field biologist and Makhan, leader of the Alichur conservancy “Burgut” came to help facilitate the workshops we organized with the communities.

Traditional hunters in Jar-Bashe, Alai valley, Kyrgyzstan map wildlife and threats with the help from Makhan Atabaev, leader of the Alichur conservancy in Tajikistan "Burgut". (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)
Traditional hunters in Jar-Bashe, Alai valley, Kyrgyzstan map wildlife and threats with the help from Makhan Atabaev, leader of the Alichur conservancy in Tajikistan “Burgut”. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)

The Kyrgyz participants, largely traditional hunters who have hunted many ibex, argali and snow leopards in their lives, were impressed as well as inspired with the stories that Makhan shared on how his people, in the face of declining wildlife, came together to protect it.

The Alichur cat "thief" who took down the camera trap during the survey we conducted in the summer. (Camera trap photograph by Panthera/Burgut)
The Alichur cat “thief” who took down the camera trap during the survey we conducted in the summer. (Camera trap photograph by Panthera/Burgut – double click on the picture for the video)

The “Markhor Award”

A few weeks ago we also cheered as the conservancies we support in Tajikistan were recognized during the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP12) with the prestigious Markhor Award. The International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) Markhor Award recognizes and celebrates outstanding conservation performances by people, private and government institutions, enterprises, or conservation projects that link the conservation of biodiversity and human livelihoods through the application of the principles of sustainable use as part of wildlife and ecosystem management.

The rangers of the conservancy "Yoquti Darshay" in the Wakhan valley with the Markhor Award. (Photograph by Munavvar Alidodov)
The rangers of the conservancy “Yoquti Darshay” in the Wakhan valley with the Markhor Award. (Photograph by Munavvar Alidodov)

Cats in Trouble

But we also had moments of utter despair. No matter how many traps we confiscate and corrals we predator-proof, snow leopards keep being trapped, killed, or tied and then locked into “sanduks”, small rectangular boxes to be opened somewhere else in Tajikistan or across the border: uncertainty looming as to what fate awaits them. I know for sure one fact: there are people out there who claim to be hunters contributing to conservation, but they jump at the opportunity to shoot a dizzy snow leopard out of a box so they can boast back home about having shot the most elusive of all wild cats!

A snow leopard skin for sale in Dushanbe. (Name of photographer not disclosed for security reasons)
A snow leopard skin for sale in Dushanbe. (Name of photographer not disclosed for security reasons)

These people don’t care about laws or local people’s livelihoods, not to mention the conservation of wildlife – doing a disservice to hunter/conservationist people and the positive role that hunting can play for conservation and livelihoods. Our local partners recently confiscated such a snow leopard. “Barsika” was trapped and spent two days crunched up in a box before she was confiscated. She is now impatiently awaiting her release.

The "sanduk" where Barsika was kept in. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)
The “sanduk” where Barsika was kept in. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)

But there are more Barsikas out there that are hard to track down, and by now they may have met a terrible fate. Standing between us and the ability to find these captured cats is the complicity of people, especially influential individuals who can negotiate barriers and buy silence so these snow leopards can quietly disappear without a trace.

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This young cat was killed in a trap – the skin and skeleton already gone by the time we got to the site. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)

Stopping the killing and illegal trade in snow leopards, especially at the hand of foreign trophy hunters, is something that we cannot do alone. Same goes for the illegal taking of some of the key snow leopard prey, the argali and the markhor. This all requires support from the international community, CITES and INTERPOL, hunting organizations and outfitters, who have the power to exert greater scrutiny on their membership and their choices.

Some of the leg-hold traps we confiscated. (Photography by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)
Some of the leg-hold traps we confiscated. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera – double click on the picture to see how the traps work)

The illegal hunting of snow leopards and their prey is a recognized problem, yet still very little, in my opinion, is being done. This problem will only get worse as Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Customs Union, making it increasingly difficult to track the movement of illegally sourced wildlife. (see the TRAFFIC report “Wildlife trade in the Eurasian Customs Union and in selected Central Asian countries”)

Pepin and Megan Parker of Working Dogs for Conservation during training. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)
Pepin and Megan Parker of Working Dogs for Conservation during training. (Photograph by Tatjana Rosen Michel/Panthera)

New Conservation Allies

Enough with the despair: hope returns when I think of Pepin, Megan, Zhenya, Alex and John. They have one thing in common: they are dog people, except for Pepin, a malinois dog himself. Megan Parker is the Director of Research at Working Dogs for Conservation and National Geographic Explorer; Zhenya and Alex are the dog trainers at the Kyrgyz Customs Unit, and finally John, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has been helping guide discussions on developing a program to train wildlife sniffer dogs in Kyrgyzstan, which we hope to implement with Megan’s support. I see sniffer dogs as critical conservation allies in this battle. There are times when you need to trust somebody else’s nose, and what can be better than a dog’s?

In Bishkek at the Canine Academy of the Kyrgyz Customs Unit. (Photography by Panthera/OSCE)
In Bishkek at the Canine Academy of the Kyrgyz Customs Unit. (Photograph by Panthera/OSCE)