The rare and secretive snow leopard is one of the few beasts that has captured human imagination. Fewer than 7,000 Panthera uncia are expected to persist over Asia’s high mountains, according to the red list of threatened species. A fifth of them dwell in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains, the world’s third-highest environment after the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. The leopards appear to be thriving here, despite the odds.
“The situation with snow leopards in Tajikistan is hopeful because the population is clearly rising,” says Khalil Karimov, a wildlife biologist and scientific adviser to Tajikistan’s Association of Nature Conservation Organizations (Ancot). “We have between 350 and 450 cats, while the precise number is impossible to determine given to the leopards’ nature and the secluded location in which they live.”
Tajikistan, a landlocked, mountainous country bordering China and Afghanistan, was the Soviet Union’s easternmost outpost for decades. When the USSR fell apart in 1991, the country descended into a five-year civil war that claimed the lives of 100,000 to 300,000 people and caused a million more to flee their homes. The country’s rare mountain ungulates — Asiatic ibex, Marco Polo sheep, markhor, and urial – were hunted to near extinction as a result of the leopards’ predation.
In recent years, however, a network of grassroots initiatives have reversed this decline – and that of other species – and Tajikistan now has five community-run conservancies covering a total of 150,000 hectares (580 sq miles), with more in various stages of formation.
One of these success stories is the M–Sayod markhor conservancy in the western Pamirs, whose 35,000 mountainous hectares border northern Afghanistan. The family-run reserve has seen a tenfold increase in Bukharan markhor (Capra falconeri heptneri), a wild goat with emblematic spiral horns, since the conservancy was founded in 2005.
Without trophy hunting, there would be no conservation here
“We used to hunt markhor for meat – we didn’t know they were an endangered species,” says Khudoydod Mulloyorov, whose father, Devlatkhan, founded the reserve. “Life was so difficult back then; people hunted to survive. Afghans even used to cross the river to hunt snow leopards and sell their skins.”
More markhor means more of their main predator, the snow leopard. In 2013, six were recorded here, the highest density at that time in the world. A team returning in 2016 identified 10 cats in the same area.
Mulloyorov, a shy, taciturn man, lights up when asked about the leopards. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen a snow leopard, but every time I see one it makes me feel alive,” he says.
Unlike countries such as India, wildlife tourism is almost nonexistent in Tajikistan. Its proximity to Afghanistan and a lingering, unjustified fear of “the Stans” puts all but the most intrepid off. With scant income from tourism and few major foreign donors, Tajikistan’s snow leopards have an unlikely saviour.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the funding for conservation in Tajikistan comes from foreign trophy hunting,” says Karimov. “Before, people used to go into the mountains and kill anything they could, but now they protect them because they have financial value.”
Karimov estimates that foreign trophy hunters contribute millions of pounds a year to the Tajik economy, with the government setting annual quotas for shooting markhor, ibex, wild boar, Marco Polo sheep and urials.
In 2021, the M-Sayod conservancy was awarded three of Tajikistan’s 12 markhor licences, with hunters paying between £100,000 and £145,000 to shoot one goat, 30% of which went directly to the reserve. In this remote mountainous region, where jobs are scarce and most families have at least one person working in Russia (a flow of money hit first by Covid and now the invasion of Ukraine), this income is a lifeline for many.
“Without trophy hunting, there would be no conservation here,” says Mulloyorov. “Thanks to hunting, we employ 20 people and improve local infrastructure.”
Ismatullo Habibuloev, head of the local village, Zhigar, agrees. “This year, the conservancy funded a new medical centre and built bear-proof fencing around our fields. We have very few other sources of income here – the benefits to the community are enormous. People value our wildlife now.”
On the Alichur plateau, a largely ethnic Kyrgyz region in the far north-east of the country, an ex-hunter called Mahan Atabaev runs a 92,000-hectare reserve. With an average altitude of 4,000 metres and winter temperatures regularly hitting -50C (-58F), it is one of the harshest inhabited places on Earth.
In 2012, when the conservancy was established, 106 Marco Polo – the world’s biggest sheep – were recorded here. Now there are more than 500. Numbers of ibex have also increased.
Mirroring the pattern at M-Sayod, as Marco Polo and ibex have prospered, so have snow leopards. In 2011, none of the cats were recorded here. In 2017, camera traps recorded nine.
In the village of Alichur, the average income – for the few people who do have jobs – is £30 a month. Most people are subsistence herders, and the ban on hunting was not welcomed initially. “At first, people were against us as we are nomad people and hunting is our culture,” says Atabaev. “But after the first trophy hunters came in 2014, we bought the village 120 sacks of flour and coal, and people saw the benefits.”
Karimov argues that it would take a great number of tourists – and all the environmental impact that entails – to bring in the same amount of income.
These days the biggest threat to Tajikistan’s wildlife is not poaching, but the climate crisis. Of Tajikistan’s 8,000 glaciers, a third are at risk of disappearing entirely by 2050. These alarming glacial retreats are causing the climate in the Pamirs to become increasingly unpredictable, with longer, colder winters and drier summers. Last winter it reached -63C on the Alichur plateau, and Bash Gumbez, a village of 44 households, lost 700 yaks and 1,000 sheep to the cold. Conditions like this also spell disaster for the wild herds that snow leopards depend on to survive.
For now – as unpalatable as it may be – trophy hunting is proving a successful model of conservation in Tajikistan.
“I have many issues with trophy hunting, but we don’t have the luxury not to do it,” says Karimov. “And without this level of sustainable trophy hunting, our populations of ungulates, and subsequently snow leopards, would rapidly decrease.”
This article by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent was first published by The Guardian on 19 April 2022. Lead Image: A snow leopard caught on a hidden camera above Lake Sarez in Tajikistan. Photograph: Association of Nature Conservation Organisations of Tajikistan.
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