There are few mammals that capture our imagination more than the rare and elusive snow leopard. Listed as vulnerable on the red list of threatened species, fewer than 7,000 Panthera uncia are thought to remain across the high mountains of Asia. Of these, an estimated 5% live in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains, the third-highest ecosystem in the world after the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. Here, against the odds, the leopards appear to be thriving.
“In Tajikistan, the situation with snow leopards is optimistic because the population is visibly increasing,” says Khalil Karimov, a wildlife biologist and scientific adviser to the Association of Nature Conservation Organizations of Tajikistan (Ancot). “We have between 350 and 450 cats, although the exact number is impossible to say due to the nature of the leopards and the remote environment they inhabit.”
A landlocked, mountainous country bordering China and Afghanistan, Tajikistan lay for decades at the eastern border of the Soviet Union. But in 1991, when the USSR disintegrated, the country slid into a five-year civil war that cost an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 lives and forced a million more from their homes. In its wake, the country rare mountain ungulates that the leopards prey on – Asiatic ibex, Marco Polo sheep, markhor and urial – were hunted to near extinction.
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 35,000mountainous 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.
“We used to hunt markhor for meat – we did not 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 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 licenses, 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 center 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 named Mahan Atabaev runs a 92,000-hectare reserve. With an average altitude of 4,000 meters 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 large 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 do not 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.”
Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent’s report on snow leopards in Tajikistan for Costing the Earth will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 19 April at 15.30