A snow leopard statue at the ranger station in Sarychat-Ertash
The privilege of experiencing Sarychat-Ertash has to be earned. Less than two hours after my second straight overnight flight lands in Bishkek, our small caravan of minibuses leaves the capital, heading south. On board are about two dozen Kyrgyz and international journalists, plus a couple of government officials and NGO representatives. Day one takes us to a snow leopard rehabilitation center, run by German conservation organization NABU.
Here, cats who have been hurt by hunter’s traps can spend the rest of their lives in safety, within an enclosed area of their natural habitat. After an extensive tour of the grounds and a traditional Kyrgyz dinner, we finally reach Karakol, our destination for the day, around midnight.
The next morning, the promise of Sarychat-Ertash has everyone excited. At 5am, we’re roused from our slumber – and before the crack of dawn, we’re back on the road. Gradually, the rising sun reveals stunning landscapes of green, ochre, tan, and various shades of grey. To the south, rugged, snowcapped peaks are looming over several ranges of soft, rolling hills. To the north, on our right, Lake Issyk-Kul glistens in the soft morning light. Soon, we turn off the main road and head south, into the snowy heart of the Tian Shan.
The Road That Kumtor Built
On this otherwise deserted gravel road, we encounter more than a dozen large trucks, heading in the opposite direction. Set against the all-encompassing white of the snowed-in landscape, these dark behemoths look vaguely threatening – and they are indeed harbingers of danger. Not for us, but for the cats. The trucks are on their way into town to get fuel. Tons of fuel. They’ll follow us back up into the mountains later that day, carrying their cargo to the Kumtor gold mine. Kumtor is a joint project between the Government of Kyrgyzstan and Canadian company Centerra. One of the world’s largest gold mines, Kumtor produced almost 18 tons of the precious metal in 2011 – and accounted for 10-12% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. The heavy machinery used at the mine consumes several tons of fuel every single day. The road the trucks use to haul all that fuel up the mountain – the road we are traveling on – was built by Kumtor.
The open-pit mine sits right on the edge of Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve, and while Kumtor’s owners have made strides to lessen the environmental impact of their operation, it remains a disruptive force in a fragile ecosystem.
Big Sky Country
After a couple of hours of steady climbing, our little convoy reaches the high plateau where the mine sits. Somehow, there isn’t a lot of snow up here. While it is a sobering sight, the open pit of Kumtor can’t lessen the awe the landscape inspires in us for long. The road gets bumpier as it follows a small stream up a broad valley, flanked by rocky peaks on either side. Most of our chatty group is left speechless by our stunning surroundings.
We often write and talk about how vast snow leopard habitat is. Standing on this windy, arid high plateau under the endless sky, the phrase acquires real meaning for the first time and almost becomes tangible. We don’t see any signs of cats, but knowing that one may very well be watching us pass through its habitat from one of the ridges above us is exhilarating nonetheless.
Around 3 in the afternoon, we finally reach our destination: the Sarychat-Ertash ranger station. A ramshackle collection of small huts, a couple of containers and a stable, the station is home to a dozen reserve rangers and their families.
Life up here at more than 10,000 feet above sea level has to be extremely frugal. The nearest town is 6 hours away, and electricity is a luxury only provided when it’s absolutely necessary. Yet, today, the small community of Sarychat-Ertash has somehow managed to cook up a veritable feast. We sit down and gorge on fresh fruit, various salads, sweet and savory treats and steaming hot soup, while Kylychbek Zhundubaev, Chief of the National Focal Point on Protected Areas at the State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry gives us a rundown on Sarychat-Ertash and its role in Kyrgyzstan’s plans to protect its snow leopards. Established by the government in 1995, the reserve has been a safe haven to a growing population of argali and ibex, as well as at least 18 snow leopards.
In 2012, after various companies including Kumtor had sought licenses to explore parts of Saychat’s buffer zone for precious metals, the Kyrgyz conservation community and state authorities worked with parliament to put a halt to any such developments and establish firm borders where no such activities may be carried out. Today, an area of around 1500 square kilometers is completely exempt from any human infringement. Penalties for poachers are steep: A fine of 1.5 million Kyrgyz soms (about $30,000) plus up to 7 years in jail are in store for illegally hunting in the reserve.
Limited Resources, Real Results
Enforcement remains an issue, however. The State Agency is underfunded, and the reserve is understaffed. A ranger’s salary is just $50 per month, well below the country’s average.
Despite their limited resources, the dedicated team has so far managed to keep Sarychat safe for snow leopards and their prey – and they’re helping scientists like the Snow Leopard Trust’s Kuban Jumabai Uluu with monitoring the area’s snow leopard population. Only a few weeks ago, Kuban, American volunteer Tristan Williams-Burden and two reserve rangers spent a week in the reserve, deploying the first of up to 40 research cameras that will help establish the exact number of cats living in Sarychat. On their trip, they encountered a group of hunters, including an Austrian tourist. The hunters claimed to have entered the reserve unwittingly, and were disarmed and sent back where they had come from by the rangers. The guns the rangers confiscated will be deposited at the headquarters of the biosphere reserve Sarychat-Ertash sits in; and even though they had not (yet) poached any animals, the hunters, whose names were recorded, will be hit with a hefty fine.
Back at the station, the rangers proudly show us footage from the first research cameras deployed in Sarychat. They’ve already managed to capture a few snow leopard photos, and are hoping for many more to follow.
Just as we get ready to thank our hosts and get up, the main course is served. Cluelessly, we’ve filled up on the delicious array of starters over the past hours. Now, each guest gets a plate of yak meat on the bone, varying in size from very large to outright gigantic. Another round of toasts is made, and we proceed to consume amounts of food previously thought impossible.
The sun has set when we finally board our minibuses, which, miraculously, seem to have survived the rough journey to Sarychat-Ertash unscathed. While most of us slumber away immediately, only occasionally waking to a surreal panorama of snowy peaks lit by a full moon, our drivers, who have not had more rest than we did, safely navigate the narrow gravel road back down to Lake Issyk-Kul – where we arrive around 3 am to a hot dinner our hostess has prepared for us in the middle of the night.
Taking this trip to Sarychat-Ertash has been enlightening and inspiring, giving a heightened sense of purpose to my work. It has also revealed the many challenges that lay ahead on our quest to save the snow leopard. These challenges are why we’ve all come together in Kyrgyzstan this week. But above all, this journey has served as a beacon of hope. I got a glimpse of snow leopard Shangri-La. Unlike its literary counterpart, this paradise behind the horizon is real. It is up to us to protect it.