Viable population of snow leopards still roam Afghanistan (pictures)

Jeremy Hance
July 13, 2011

 Snow leopard in the Wakhan Corridor caught on camera trap. Photo by: Wildlife Conservation Society.
Snow leopard in the Wakhan Corridor caught on camera trap. Photo by: Wildlife Conservation Society.

Decades of war and poverty has not exterminated snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in Afghanistan according to a new paper in the International Journal of Environmental Studies, written by researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Instead the researchers report a healthy population of the world's most elusive big cat in Afghanistan's remote and peaceful Wakhan Corridor region. Monitored by camera trap in the region, WCS researchers were able to identify 30 snow leopards in 16 different locations.

"This is a wonderful discovery—it shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan," said Peter Zahler, WCS Deputy Director for Asia Programs in a press release. "Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as a key part of Afghanistan’s natural heritage."

Snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor, which connects Afghanistan with China, are imperiled by poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and illegal capture for the global pet trade. "For a species like the snow leopard, which occurs at low densities, and a country like Afghanistan where the rule of law is weak" such threats are 'significant', according to the researchers.

Snow leopard in the Wakhan Corridor caught on camera trap. Photo by: Wildlife Conservation Society.
Snow leopard in the Wakhan Corridor caught on camera trap. Photo by: Wildlife Conservation Society.
With help from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), WCS has trained 59 wildlife rangers and works with 55 local communities on governance and education. Although there are few instances of snow leopards preying on livestock, WCS is also helping to build predator-proof corrals and establish a livestock insurance program.

One of the major challenges in the region is widespread poverty and lack of services for communities.

"The Wakhan is one of the most remote and isolated mountain landscapes in the world and a place of immense beauty. [...] [The people in the area] are among the most disadvantaged in the world, having high child mortality rates, in places exceeding 50 percent by age five. Like many poor communities, the people of Wakhan are heavily dependent on their natural resources for survival," the researchers explain, adding that given these conditions WCS's work in the area "focuses heavily on the local communities, helping them to develop sustainable natural resource management plans and the capacity to implement the plans. In addition to saving threatened species in Wakhan, a major aim is livelihood improvement for the communities, in ways that harmonize with sustainable natural resource management."

Scientists say that tourism, in hand with conservation, could become a new lifeline for these communities.

"This is one of the few peaceful places in Afghanistan, its people never having engaged in any of the violence and strife elsewhere. Tourist numbers in Wakhan have been increasing rapidly since 2005 with the yearly total currently being between 200 and 250. This is providing a much needed cash stimulus to the local economy," the authors write, adding that the conservation of snow leopards should be integrated with tourism efforts.

Next up the WCS plans to begin marking snow leopards to estimate the total population size in Wakhan.

Listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, global estimates of snow leopard range from 4,500 to 7,500 individuals. Like many of the world's top predators, the species is in decline. Researchers estimate its population has dropped 20 percent in less than two decades.

CITATION: Anthony Simms, Zalmai Moheb, Salahudin, Hussain Ali, Inayat Ali & Timothy Wood (2011): Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor, International Journal of Environmental Studies, 68:3, 299-312.

Snow leopard caught by camera trap in Afghanistan. Photo by: Wildlife Conservation Society.
Snow leopard caught by camera trap in Afghanistan. Photo by: Wildlife Conservation Society.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (July 13, 2011).

Viable population of snow leopards still roam Afghanistan (pictures).