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How my First Snow Leopard Encounter Defined my Career Path

The snow leopard is an endangered high-altitude predator species occurring in 12 Asian countries, including Afghanistan, where around 50-200 individuals exist. Wakhan National Park, in northeastern Afghanistan, a high-elevation region above the tree line (most of the sanctuary is at 3600 meter and above), is considered a hotspot for snow leopards and their spectacular wild prey species such as Marco Polo sheep, urial, and ibex. As a young wildlife biologist trying to define my future career, I spent much of my time involved in conservation projects in Wakhan National Park where snow leopard depredation on livestock, and sometimes, retaliatory killing of snow leopards, seemed fairly commonplace. I was constantly thinking about the direction I should take in my conservation interests. I was fascinated by the snow leopard and by these remarkable wild ungulates; however, I did not foresee that future circumstances might shape my mind.

It was early in June 2010 that the door of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) office in Wakhan was being hammered very hard and accompanied by angry shouting. I came out of the office and was met by an angry old man with a long stick in his hand shouting, “Your snow leopard has killed the only bull I had and I want compensation!”

While this man was crying and yelling at me, I was trying to calm him down and learn more about the incident. Showing him respect and sympathy by calling him “Uncle,” I asked when, how, and where this had happened. He pointed towards the steep hill south of our office and said: “It happened today over there close to the snow patches.”

I told him that I felt sorry for his loss but that we were an NGO only helping communities to manage their natural resources, and therefore didn’t own the snow leopards. I said the cats belonged to the government of Afghanistan and he would need to register his complaint with the District Governor’s office.

Before he left, I managed to get a rough location of the incident, and then peacefully sent him on his way. Now, as a young biologist, I was interested in using camera traps to photograph this snow leopard at the bull carcass, where he would likely stay for a few days.

Early that afternoon, my three colleagues and I started walking in the direction that the old man had pointed. Our task was to find the carcass and set the camera traps nearby. After three hours of hiking over steep slopes and cliffs, everyone had spread out to increase our chances of finding the carcass. Two of my friends were exhausted and stayed behind, while the third one, who was a local ranger, was far ahead of me climbing even higher. Eventually, we lost contact with one another in the rough terrain. Since it was getting late and we had to return home before dark, I had already given up trying to find the carcass and was more interested in finding my friends.

Though I was fatigued from my search efforts, I continued to seek out the local ranger. But then I saw something jump and disappear. I first thought that it was some bird of prey, but quickly saw another jump and then a third one that ended with an aggressive snow leopard about 15 meters in front of me, trying to defend its kill. The animal appeared much more aggressive than the old man beating our door earlier today and I froze.

While I always dreamed of seeing a snow leopard in the wild, and maybe take pictures of it, this encounter was not what I had in mind. Though I had my camera hanging around my neck, I did not even think about it’s existence, let alone using it to make photographs. The only thing on my mind was to save myself from this belligerent animal. I slowly stepped back a step or two then turned and quickly “escaped” by jumping over big rocks and scrambling down cliffs. After racing for about 200 meters I turned back to discover that the animal was not chasing me. My heart was beating hard and I was still trying to figure out if I was safe.

After find my friends we went back together to the area being, almost certain that the carcass would be near where I encountered the snow leopard. As expected, we found the carcass and set the camera traps around it. Those cameras had captured many photos of the snow leopard, including the one at the top of this post, as well as of red fox, vultures, and other wild species.

It turned out that we would meet this particular snow leopard again. We named him “Pahlawan” (wrestler) two years later when we trapped and tagged him with a GPS collar in June 2012. We identified him through his coat patterns.

Snow leopard team setting camera trap on the carcass in the Hindu Kush north-facing slopes about the Qala-e Panja village, Wakhan Corridor. Photo courtesy of WCS-Afghanistan Program.
Snow leopard team setting camera trap on the carcass in the Hindu Kush north-facing slopes about the Qala-e Panja village, Wakhan Corridor. Photo courtesy of WCS-Afghanistan Program.

This unexpected encounter with a snow leopard, along with the heartbreaking concern of the owner of the bull, made me think carefully about conservation in the area. Although I had heard about depredation incidents before, none of them gripped me until this series of events. I saw that snow leopard depredations pose threats to community livelihood, as the dead bull would have been worth as much as 4 to 5 month’s salary of a regular government employee at that time, and thus much for a poor household to lose.

Such predations not only threatened people’s economic circumstances but also posed real threats to snow leopards by means of retaliatory killings by the affected community members. Aiming to mitigate this problem, I decided that if I did one good thing in my life it should be solving the conflicts between snow leopards and the livelihoods of these poor communities.

Although it was very scary and dangerous, this single incident that included the screaming face of the old man, my first ever confrontation with a wild snow leopard, and all the excitement and emotion behind those events, helped me find my real interests and shaped my future career. I continued to help with snow leopard camera trapping and participated in capturing and following 4 snow leopards in Wakhan using GPS telemetry. In addition, I helped draft the national policy for Afghanistan on snow leopards, the National Snow leopard Ecosystem Protection (NSLEP), with collaboration of the Government of Afghanistan. I also have contributed to the snow leopard book entitled “Snow Leopards-Biodiversity of the World-Conservation from Genes to Landscapes”, providing the chapter about snow leopard conservation and status in Afghanistan.

As I thought more about snow leopard conservation, I became even more interested in the root causes of depredation on livestock. Research related to this would certainly help mitigate snow leopard-human conflict and would eventually lead to conserving both the species and community livelihoods.

Having this in mind, I came across the Fulbright PhD Scholarship in 2014, and by articulating my research interests I eventually got the scholarship. This appeared to be a unique opportunity for me to turn my dreams to reality and study snow leopard depredation and conflicts with human communities.

I am now a second-year PhD student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts, currently studying snow leopard-human conflict in the mountains of the northeastern Afghanistan. I trust that my research brings positive changes to the lives of local people, as well as to the conservation of this magnificent big cat species in my study area.

IMG_7970Zalmai Moheb was born in Khoshi District, Logar, Afghanistan in 1981. He spent 12 years of his childhood in Pakistan, where he completed his primary school, before his family moved back to Afghanistan. Mr. Moheb completed his secondary school in Khoshi, Logar and then he joined the Kabul University, from which he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Agricultural Science in 2005.

He started his career with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as a Field Research Assistant in 2006. He later went to India, where in 2009 he received a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Science. After completing his Master’s, Zalmai rejoined WCS-Afghanistan, where he served in different positions including Conservation Officer, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Research and Monitoring Manager, and Ecological Survey Manager.

In his tenure with WCS-Afghanistan, Mr. Moheb conducted several wildlife surveys in remote areas throughout the country. He conducted research on several wild species such as the snow leopard, Persian leopard, brown bear, Marco Polo sheep, urial, markhor, ibex, Bactrian deer and several other species. In addition, Mr. Moheb actively contributed to several national documents e.g. National Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection, and the justification document for the Afghanistan’s second national park, the Wakhan National Park, declared in 2014. Moreover, he acted as technical advisor to the government of Afghanistan at several international conferences. Zalmai Moheb has published articles about brown bears, snow leopard, Persian leopards and Bactrian deer in various international journals. He has also contributed as lead author of the chapter for Afghanistan in the gain book “Snow Leopards-Biodiversity of the World-Conservation from Genes to Landscapes”.

Zalmai Moheb is interested in wildlife and nature conservation in Afghanistan, in particular conserving the endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and its prey species in northeastern Afghanistan. His focus is to study the explanatory factors of snow leopard depredation, prey-predator relationships, the pastoral behavior of local communities, and the impact of livestock management for mitigating human-wildlife conflict in the Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains within the Wakhan National Park in northeastern Afghanistan. Mr. Moheb’s future goals are to train more and more people in the field of environmental conservation and to build a conservation network in Afghanistan. Moreover, he wants to establish a non-governmental wildlife organization that could serve in the field of wildlife and environmental conservation throughout Afghanistan.

Comments

  1. Juan Carlos Cruz
    Costa Rica
    August 31, 12:59 pm

    Great job Zalmai!

  2. Qais Sahar
    Kabul, Afghanistan
    August 22, 4:07 am

    Keep the great work up Mr. Zalmai Moheb! You are indeed our proud and pride!!

  3. Hollie Sutherland
    United States
    August 19, 11:09 am

    Great work Zalmai!

  4. Hollie Sutherland
    United States
    August 19, 11:08 am

    Great work Zalmai!

  5. Amanda McLaren
    United States
    August 19, 3:15 am

    Fight for the earth. Don’t fight to let her and her creatures die.