Smithsonian Mag Publishes on Community-Based Conservation in Kyrgyzstan
To reach the Tien Shan mountains from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, you head east until you hit the shores of a vast freshwater lake called Issyk Kul, and then you turn southeast, in the direction of the Chinese border—a drive of about ten hours, if the weather is good and the roads are clear. The week I made the trip, last winter, in the company of a snow leopard scientist named Tanya Rosen, it took considerably longer. There was rain in Bishkek, and snow on the plains. Every 20 miles or so, we slowed to allow young shepherd boys, stooped like old shepherd men, to drive their sheep from one side of the ice-slick road to the other. In the distance, the mountains loomed.
“Kyrgyz traffic jam,” the driver, Zairbek Kubanychbekov, a Kyrgyz staffer with Panthera, the American nonprofit where Rosen is a senior scientist, called out from behind the wheel. Rosen laughed. “You’ll get used to it,” she told me. “I remember one of the very first things I decided when I came to Central Asia was that I wouldn’t allow myself to get annoyed or angry at the pace of travel here. Because if you do, you won’t have any time for anything else. I surrendered.”
Rosen, who is 42, was born in Italy and raised in what was then Yugoslavia. She speaks six languages fluently, another two passably, and her accent, while vaguely European, can be hard to place. In another life, she worked as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, but in 2005, frustrated with her job, she and her husband separated and she moved to Grand Teton National Park and then to Yellowstone, to work for the U.S. Geological Survey with grizzly bears while earning a master’s degree in social ecology from Yale. An interest in big-clawed bears gave way to an interest in big-clawed cats, and for the past half decade, Rosen has spent almost all her time studying Panthera uncia, or the snow leopard, an animal whose life in the wild, owing to its far-flung habitat and fundamentally elusive nature, remains little known.
In Tajikistan, Rosen and her colleagues at Panthera helped to set up a network of pioneering community-run conservancies—areas controlled and policed not by government rangers but by local people. The programs were a success—recent surveys showed snow leopard counts inside the Tajik conservancies climbing up. Now she was pushing north, into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where, except in a single nature reserve called Sarychat-Ertash, little research has been done. So much remains unknown that scientists debate even the size of the snow leopard population itself: Some thought there were a thousand cats in the country, others put the number at 300.
Near the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, we stopped to spend the night, and the next day we added another passenger to the already-overstuffed car: Azamat, the owner of the hunting camp. Azamat was dark-haired and absurdly handsome, with little English and a passion for Soviet weaponry; the lock screen on his cellphone, which he showed me immediately after we met, was a glossy photograph of his favorite scoped automatic rifle.
At 12,200 feet, the sage of the plains gave way to the middle reaches of the mountains, and the only other vehicles were trucks from a nearby gold mine. All around us was an ocean of unbroken snowpack; without sunglasses, it hurt to even open your eyes. At 15,000 feet, according to the altimeter on my satellite phone, the air began to feel painfully thin; my vision clouded at the corners with a gray haze, and my head throbbed.
Before I came to Kyrgyzstan, Rodney Jackson, the head of an American nonprofit called the Snow Leopard Conservancy, told me that the reason so few scientists chose to specialize in the feline—as opposed to, say, the tiger—is that tracking snow leopards is an intensely physical endeavor: Altitude hurts, and so does the punishing amount of travel involved. Not everyone wants to spend weeks at a time in the mountains, fending off the nausea and the pain of mountain sickness. I was starting to see what he meant. I swallowed a Diamox pill, a prescription medicine to minimize the effects of altitude, and slumped lower into the bench seat.
Rosen shouted: Ahead, a pack of long-horned argali sheep, a favorite prey of the snow leopard, were watching us approach. But before I could get my binoculars focused, they scattered, flecking the slopes with hoof prints. Four days after leaving home, I’d arrived at last in snow leopard country.
The snow leopard is a deceptively small beast: Males are 95 pounds, give or take, and light through the back and torso. They stand little more than 24 inches tall. (Female snow leopards are smaller still.) And yet as the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen, who wrote his most famous book about the snow leopard, once noted, there are few animals that can match its “terrible beauty,” which he described as “the very stuff of human longing.”
Although snow leopards will descend to altitudes of 2,500 feet, they are most comfortable in steep and rocky mountains of 10,000 feet or higher, in the distant reaches of terrain historically inhospitable to man. It is no accident that in so many cultures, from Buddhist Tibet to the tribal regions of Tajikistan, the snow leopard is viewed as sacred: We must climb upward, in the direction of the heavens, to find it.
And even then, we may not sense its presence. Save for the pink nose and glimmering green or blue eyes, its camouflage is perfect, the black-speckled gray pelt a good blend for both snow and alpine rock. In Kyrgyzstan, I heard stories of experienced hunters coming within yards of a snow leopard without being the wiser for it; the next morning, following the path back to their cabin, the hunters would see tracks shadowing their own.
Although packs of wolves or even a golden eagle may bring down an unprotected cub, the same spring-loaded haunches that allow an adult snow leopard to jump distances of close to 30 feet, from mountain ledge to mountain ledge, make the animal a devastating killer.
Data from the Snow Leopard Trust suggest that the cat will bring down an animal every eight to ten days—ibex or bharal or long-horned argali sheep, whichever large ungulates are nearby—and can spend three or four days picking apart the carcass. Tom McCarthy, executive director of Snow Leopard Programs at Panthera, says he has collared more than a few of the animals in Mongolia with split lips and torn ears: an indication that some of the snow leopard’s prey will fight back. But it’s also possible that male snow leopards “smack each other around,” McCarthy says, in tussles over mountain turf.
Female snow leopards will breed or attempt to breed once every two years, and their home ranges may partially overlap. Pregnancy lasts about 100 days; litters can range from one cub to five, although mortality rates for snow leopard cubs are unknown—the harsh climate, it’s thought, may claim a significant number. Once her cubs are born, a female snow leopard will guard them for a year and a half to two years, until the young leopards are capable of hunting on their own.
The life of a male snow leopard is lonelier. He might stay with a female for a few days while they mate, but after that he’ll typically return to hunting and defending his territory in solitude. In Kyrgyzstan, he is often referred to, with reverence, as “the mountain ghost.”
And yet the snow leopard’s remote habitat is no longer enough to protect it. At one time, thousands of snow leopards populated the peaks of Central Asia, the Himalayan hinterlands of India, Nepal, Mongolia and Russia, and the plateaus of China. Today, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are fewer than 6,600 snow leopards in the wild. In some countries, according to the WWF, the numbers have dwindled to the point that a zero count has become a real possibility: between 200 to 420 in Pakistan and 70 to 90 in Russia.
The primary culprit is man. Driven by the collapse of local economies in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and enticed by the robust market for snow leopard parts in Asia, where pelts are worth a small fortune and bones and organs are used in traditional medicines, over the past few decades poachers have made increasingly regular forays into the mountains of Central Asia, often emerging with dozens of dead leopards. Cubs are illegally sold to circuses or zoos; WWF China reports that private collectors have paid $20,000 for a healthy specimen. The poachers use untraceable steel traps and rifles; like the leopards themselves, they operate as phantoms.
As the human population expands, the snow leopard’s range has shrunk in proportion—villages and farms crop up on land that once belonged exclusively to wild animals. In Central Asia, a farmer who opens his corral one morning to find a heap of half-eaten sheep carcasses has plenty of incentive to make sure the same snow leopard doesn’t strike again. Meanwhile, snow leopard habitat is being chipped away by mining and logging, and in the future, McCarthy believes, climate change could emerge as a serious threat. “You might end up with a scenario where as more snow melts, the leopards are driven into these small population islands,” he says.
McCarthy points out that the loss of the snow leopard would mean more than the loss of a beautiful creature, or the erasure, as in the case with the Caspian tiger, which vanished in the mid-20th century, of a link to our ecological past. Nature is interlocked and interdependent—one living part relies on the next. Without snow leopards, too many ungulates would mean that mountain meadows and foliage would be chomped down to dirt. The animal’s extinction would forever alter the ecosystem.
In recent years, much of the work of organizations such as the WWF, Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust has centered more on people than the cats themselves: lobbying local governments to crack down on poaching; finding ways to enhance law enforcement efforts; and working with local farmers to improve the quality and safety of their corrals, because higher fences means fewer snow leopard attacks on livestock and so fewer retaliatory shootings.
“There’s a temptation to think in terms of grand, sweeping solutions,” Rosen told me. “But, as with all conservation, it is less about the animal than it is getting the best out of the human beings who live alongside it.”
Jackson says that the primary challenge is one of political will. “I’m convinced that in places where anti-poaching laws are strict, like Nepal, things have gotten markedly better,” he told me. “People have seen the cultural incentive in having the cat alive. And they’ve watched people get prosecuted for poaching, and they’re wary of messing with that.” But activists and scientists like Jackson have been working in places like Nepal for decades.
By comparison, Kyrgyzstan is a new frontier.
Azamat’s hunting camp turned out to be a cluster of trailers sheltered to the east by a stone cliff and to the west by a row of rounded hills. There was a stable for the horses used by visiting hunters, a gas-powered generator for power and wood stoves for heat. Ulan, a ranger acquaintance of Azamat’s, had arrived earlier in the day with his wife, who would do the cooking.
We ate a wordless meal of bread and soup and threw our sleeping bags on the bunks in the middle trailer. The stove was already lit. I was sore from the drive, jet-lagged, dehydrated from the elevation. Underneath my thermal shirt, my lungs were doing double-duty. I flicked on my headlamp and tried to read, but my attention span had disappeared with the oxygen. Finally, I got dressed and stepped outside.
The night was immense; the constellations looked not distant and unreachable, as they had back on earth, but within arm’s length. By my reckoning, it was 300 miles to the nearest middle-sized town, 120 miles to the nearest medical clinic and 30 miles to the nearest house.
At 5:30 a.m., Askar Davletbakov, a middle-aged Kyrgyz scientist who had accompanied us to the camp, shook me by the shoulders. His small frame was hidden under four layers of synthetic fleece and down. “Time to go,” he said. He had a camera trap in his hand. Rosen had brought along ten of the devices, which are motion-activated: A snow leopard passes by the lens, and snap, a handful of still images are recorded onto a memory card. Later, the camera is collected, and the data is uploaded to a Panthera computer.
We’d hoped to set out on horseback, but the ice in the canyons was too thin—the horses might go crashing through to the river below—so instead we drove out to the canyon mouth and hiked the rest of the way on foot. It was minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and colder with the wind. Through the ice on the river I could see sharp black fish darting in the current. Naryn howled; the sound filled the canyon. Resting totemically in the snow up ahead was the skull of an argali sheep torn into pieces by a pack of wolves. The job had not been finished: Clumps of flesh still clung to the spinal column, and one buttery eye remained in its socket.
Nearby, we found the first snow leopard tracks, discernible by the pads and the long tubular line that the tail makes in the snow. A snow leopard’s tail can measure three and a half feet; the cats often wrap themselves in it in the winter, or use it as a balancing tool when traversing icy slopes. I knelt down and traced my finger over the tracks. “Very good sign,” Rosen said. “Looks fresh. Maybe a few hours old.”
Zairbek removed a camera trap from his pack and climbed up a gully to set it. The process was onerous: You need dexterity to flip the requisite switches, but even a few moments without gloves was enough to turn your fingers blue. Three hours after we’d left camp, we’d traveled two miles and set only four traps.
The canyon narrowed to the point where we were forced to walk single file; the ice groaned ominously underfoot. I watched Ulan, a cigarette in hand, testing the ground with his boot. The accident, when it happened, gave me no time to react: Ulan was there, and then he was not. Azamat pushed past me, got his hands under Ulan’s armpits, and hauled him out of the river. The hunter was soaked through to his upper chest; already, his face was noticeably paler. We set the remaining traps as quickly as we could, in caves and in cascades of scree, and turned back home, where Ulan, with a mug of hot tea in hand, could warm his legs in front of the stove.
We ate more soup and more bread, and drank large glasses of Coca-Cola. While in the mountains, Rosen consumes the stuff by the gallon—something about the caffeine and sugar and carbonation, she believes, helps to ward off altitude sickness. I wondered aloud, given the difficulty of just the past couple of days, whether she ever felt overwhelmed. Surely it would be more comfortable to continue to study the grizzly, which at least has the sense to live closer to sea level.
Rosen considered this for a moment, and then she told me a story about a trip to Central Asia a few years back. “I was tired, I was sore,” she said. “We’d been driving all day. And then, from the window, I saw a snow leopard a few hundred yards away, looking back at me. Just the way it moved—the grace, the beauty. I remember being so happy in that moment. I thought, ‘OK, this is why I’m here. And this is why I’m staying.’”