There is no place for snow leopards quite like Kyrgyzstan. Dominated by soaring mountains, over half of the country is considered prime roaming grounds for the big cats. Kyrgyzstan also sits at the crossroads of north and south snow leopard range, and boasts a high diversity of species, including the iconic snow leopard as a flagship. As of spring 2020, IUCN Save Our Species is partnering with the Snow Leopard Trust on an ambitious and innovative 18-month project to protect even more habitat through community partnerships in this prime region.
Globally, as few as 3,500 snow leopards may remain in the wild and an estimated 150-200 are believed to remain in the stronghold of Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan and Alai Mountains. Snow leopards are officially recognized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Their general population trend is thought to be decreasing. Localized extinctions are believed to have occurred in some areas of the former Soviet Union, including Kyrgyzstan. Poaching and intensifying human-wildlife conflicts are major threats to snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan, and across the cat’s range it’s believed that roughly 2-10% of the population could be poached annually.
In April 2020, IUCN Save Our Species and Snow Leopard Trust began work to reverse these trends with the goal to improve management in novel ‘co-managed’ wildlife conservancies and expand livelihood and outreach programs to local communities. To accomplish this work, Snow Leopard Trust is joined by longtime collaborators, Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan and Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, USA.
For many years, Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, with support from the Woodland Park Zoo, have been implementing community-based conservation programs, such as conservation handicrafts, predator-proof corrals, and nature education. In 2015, in response to concerns over unsustainable hunting, a new ‘outside the box’ model was conceived. Shamshy, a former hunting concession in the Ala Too range of Inner Tien Shan, was converted into a protected area for research and conservation in collaboration with the Government of Kyrgyzstan. The Government of Kyrgyzstan has since been interested in expanding the model, and our new project with IUCN Save Our Species helps accomplish this aim.
“With support from IUCN Save Our Species, we have a chance to work in partnership with government and local communities to transform existing and potential hunting concessions into co-managed wildlife protection areas,” says Charudutt Mishra, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust. “This will provide direct protection to snow leopards and key prey species through long-term no-hunting agreements and improved anti-poaching ranger patrols.”
Agreements have already been signed between Snow Leopard Trust, Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, and the Government of Kyrgyzstan to launch co-management in two new areas, called Aksu and Kochkor. “Kochkor is a critical place to conserve,” explains Kubanychbek (Kuban) Zhumabai uulu, Director of Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan. “It’s unprotected land, and without these agreements it might already be undergoing unsustainable hunting. With agreements in place, we can protect this land in partnership with the local communities.” Under the IUCN Save Our Species project, we will bring new training to rangers in all three co-managed areas, conduct wildlife surveys in these areas, and reach out to build greater engagement with local people.
Beyond these co-managed areas, IUCN Save Our Species will also help to build new livelihood and outreach programs across a wider landscape in Kyrgyzstan. By 2021, we expect to start conservation programs in at least three new communities and expand our successful environmental education program to over 100 children. “These programs are the key to snow leopard conservation in Kyrgyzstan,” says Kuban. “The conservation programs help local people stabilize their income and the education programs help develop the understanding needed to actively take part in conservation. Without programs like this, many people just see snow leopards as a problem. When we work with them to build solutions, they see that they can live peacefully with the cats.”
Although the project has just launched, all partners are already looking to its future impact and are excited for the outcomes. Says Charudutt, “Growing these programs over the next 18 months will give us a chance to anchor this work in key regions, further develop our models, and apply our learning so that in the future we can scale towards helping Kyrgyzstan meet national and global snow leopard survival strategies.”
This project is co-funded by IUCN Save Our Species @SpeciesSavers. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Snow Leopard Trust and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN. This project is in collaboration with Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan and Woodland Park Zoo.