The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) – one of the world’s most elusive and enigmatic of creatures – has its main stronghold in Afghanistan along the Wakhan Corridor in the northern province of Badakhshan and at the eastern Afghan/Pakistan border in the province of Nuristan. These two areas, between 3,000 and 5,000 m in elevation, form just a fraction of the snow leopard’s vast global range that extends through 12 different countries in Asia including Myanmar and Russia, covering approximately 2 million square kilometers.
Total global population numbers of between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals are rough estimates at best because snow leopards are notoriously difficult animals to study or even see in the wild, having the perfect camouflage for alpine living with their distinctive smoky-gray fur and dark rosette patterning. Other adaptations for life in the high-altitude, sub-zero temperature zones include a long flexible tail for balancing on rocky terrain and for wrapping around the body to retain heat, large paws for distributing their weight evenly while padding through thick snow, short forelimbs and long hindlimbs for leaping several meters at a time, and an enlarged nasal cavity to ease breathing at higher elevations.
Despite such specialization to their unique and unforgiving environment, snow leopard numbers have plummeted across their range in the last five decades, leaving the species on the brink of extinction. Heavy poaching to fuel the illegal trade in snow leopard furs and the Traditional Chinese Medicine market in their bones has been their most significant threat, and the black market trade in their parts is certainly still thriving.
Since 2006, WCS staff have been collecting evidence and galvanizing appropriate action against a number of shops and military bazaars in Kabul that are trading in snow leopard furs, despite the species being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (banning all commercial trade in its parts), and being a Protected Species in Afghanistan that strictly prohibits the hunting and trading of all listed species. A terrible example witnessed by WCS was in February 2010 involving a snow leopard female that was snared and held by poachers in Faizabad, the provincial capital of Badakhshan. They were hoping to sell her on to Pakistani traders; however the pitiful conditions in which she was kept meant the snow leopard died before the Afghan police and NATO forces could rescue and release her. This is even more of a tragedy considering snow leopard numbers in Afghanistan could total no more than 100.
Snow leopards are also under serious threat from a loss in their natural prey base. Livestock are now competing directly with wild ungulates such as Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii) and grazing lands in the northern reaches of Afghanistan are breaking up prime snow leopard habitat into small, isolated fragments. With declining numbers of prey and areas to hunt in, the leopards often resort to killing livestock that share their habitat, which can have lethal consequences for both predator and prey. In 2009, WCS field researchers found a snow leopard sub-adult in Wakhan that had been clubbed to death by a local farmer in retaliation for attacks on his livestock.
More research into the snow leopard’s range in Afghanistan and increased awareness-raising amongst local communities offers the snow leopards a possible lifeline. Being so hard to study in the wild, WCS researchers have had to rely on other, more indirect approaches to build up a picture of snow leopard range and ecology in the Wakhan Corridor. Since the spring of 2009, numerous camera traps have been deployed by WCS/community ranger teams at strategic points along the Hindu Kush mountains and valleys of the Corridor. The first results from the five cameras came back in May 2009, with three of the cameras having taken 48 snow leopard pictures. By September 2010, 30 snow leopard photograph captures had occurred at 15 different locations. This was an excellent result and provided a very interesting insight into the habits and lives of the leopards and their prey.
Other signs of snow leopard presence are also regularly documented by the ranger and WCS teams including territorial marks such as scrapes and urine sprays, recent snow leopard kills and scat, and their pug marks through the snow. During summer wildlife surveys in 2009, community rangers even encountered their first snow leopard at close range whilst setting up camera traps in the Sast Valley. Two leopards were busy stalking ibex (Capra sibirica) which is one of the main prey species in Wakhan.
For any sightings or signs of presence like this, WCS researchers and rangers record the exact coordinates using Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS). These data are then sent on to our Geographical Information Systems (GIS) teams in Kabul and New York who are able to map and model snow leopard range and abundance with increasing accuracy. Being a true flagship species for the remaining wildlife of Afghanistan, WCS will be continuing this valuable research in the future, helping scientists and conservationists across the world monitor and protect this mysterious animal.
More recently, WCS have also been piloting Afghanistan’s first livestock depredation insurance program in the Wakhan and assisted villages to create the first predator-proof corral in the corridor. These schemes aim to protect local livestock from snow leopard predation in the future, and to prevent retaliatory attacks from farmers who would otherwise lose part of their sole source of income.