Central Asian Conservationists Spotlight Snow Leopards
Conservationists have pledged to begin coordinating efforts to save the snow leopard, the endangered cat that’s a mascot in some parts of Central Asia. On October 22, participants at The Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum, held in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, unveiled the Bishkek Declaration, a seven-year initiative that aims to coordinate conservation efforts in the twelve countries where these big mountain-dwelling felines are found. Snow leopards, whose numbers are dwindling due to poaching and human encroachment on their habitats, live in the various mountain ranges jutting out from the Himalayas, such as the Tien Shan in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Pamirs in Tajikistan. There are believed to be somewhere between 4,500 and 7,500 left in the wild. Also known as “barys” in Kazakh, the cats loom large in Central Asia. Bishkek and Almaty, in Kazakhstan, both employ imagery of a snow leopard on their emblems. The snow leopard is the mascot of the upcoming Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia (they also live in the Altai Mountains in Siberia). Delegates at the forum called for increased cross-border cooperation to help protect the threatened mountain ecosystems where the leopards roam and declared October 23 the Day of the Snow Leopard, with 2015 set to be the Year of the Snow Leopard.Kyrgyzstan announced ahead of the forum that it had increased fines for illegal poaching to 500,000 soms (around $10,000). But that may be insignificant compared with the big money that hunters can earn from selling the leopards' fur to the garment industry in Russia and bones and body parts to practitioners of traditional Asian medicines. Western hunters are also said to pay easily that much for the chance to kill one of the endangered animals in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan is home to a rehabilitation center – run in conjunction with the Berlin-based Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) – which nurses injured felines and releases them back into the wild. In May 2012, doctors in Almaty operated on two snow leopards from the center to prevent blindness.
Paul Bartlett is a journalist based in Almaty.