Snow Leopards Caught on Camera Traps in Afghanistan

NEW YORK, New York, July 19, 2011 (ENS) – Vanishingly rare and classed as Endangered, snow leopards are surviving in the mountainous reaches of northeastern Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, the first camera trap images of these big cats in Afghanistan reveal.

Scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society working with Wakhan rangers captured images of 30 different snow leopards from 16 locations between April 2009 and August 2010.

Camera trap image of snow leopard 2009 (Photo courtesy WCS)

“This is a wonderful discovery. It shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan,” said Peter Zahler, WCS deputy director for Asia Programs. Based at New York’s Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, global conservation and education.

“Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as a key part of Afghanistan’s natural heritage,” said Zahler.

The Wakan Corridor is a narrow strip of land 220 miles (354 kilometers) long, between Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and bordering China along a short stretch to the east.

All the images captured came from cameras in the Hindu Kush Mountains, with the exception of two in the Pamir Mountains. The researchers said this is “more a reflection of survey effort than snow leopard abundance, because the vast majority of trapping has focused on the Hindu Kush.”

Even with the new discovery, the snow leopard, Panthera uncia, as a species remains threatened across the region. Poaching for their pelts and bones, persecution by shepherds, and the capture of live animals for the illegal pet trade have all been documented in the Wakhan Corridor.

Snow leopard sniffs a boulder where other animals have left their scents, January 2011. (Photo courtesy WCS)

Snow leopard populations are estimated to have declined by at least 20 percent over the past 16 years. Between 4,500 and 7,500 snow leopards are estimated to remain in the wild, scattered across a dozen countries in Central Asia.

The camera trap study, appears in the June 29 issue of the “Journal of Environmental Studies,” authored by WCS conservationists Anthony Simms, Zalmai Moheb, Salahudin, Hussain Ali, Inayat Ali and Timothy Wood.

Snow leopard conservationists say that involving local communities in the protection of these rare cats is the best way to ensure their future survival.

Simms, lead author and the camera trap project’s technical advisor, said, “By developing a community-led management approach, we believe snow leopards will be conserved in Afghanistan over the long term.”

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species explains part of the situation that is squeezing snow leopards out of existence.

“Over-stocking of the fragile high-altitude grasslands with livestock is widespread throughout snow leopard range, leading to declines in the wild prey base, and an increase in retributive killing when snow leopards turn to livestock,” the IUCN says, quoting Dr. Tom McCarthy, director of Snow Leopard Programs with the New York-based nonprofit Panthera. Dr. McCarthy also serves as science and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

Snow leopards are vulnerable to poaching for the illegal trade in pelts and bones. The rising frequency and number of poachers and traders intercepted on their way into China with snow leopard parts, indicates that demand for such products is increasing.

Snow leopard in Afghanistan, March 2011 (Photo courtesy WCS)

McCarthy is now leading two new Panthera initiatives. The first is a range-wide assessment of snow leopard genetics that seeks to identify movement corridors which are critical to maintaining the health and genetic diversity of the species. The second is a revision of methods by which snow leopard populations can be monitored over time, including such non-invasive approaches as fecal genetics, camera trapping and statistical modeling based on sign surveys.

In response to the threats to snow leopard survival, Wildlife Conservation Society has developed a set of conservation initiatives – partnering with local communities, training of rangers, and education and outreach efforts.

These initiatives are beginning to pay off, the WCS says, with conservation education now taking place in every school in the Wakhan region.

Fifty-nine rangers have been trained to date. While enforcing laws against poaching, they monitor not only snow leopards but other species, including leopard prey species Marco Polo sheep and ibex.

WCS has also initiated the construction of predator-proof livestock corrals and a livestock insurance program that compensates shepherds, though initial WCS research shows that few livestock in the region fall to predators.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided support to WCS to work in more than 55 communities and is training local people to monitor and sustainably manage their wildlife and other resources.

An outcome of this project was the creation of Afghanistan’s first national park – Band-e-Amir National Park – which is now co-managed by the government and a committee consisting of all 14 communities living around the park.

However, the general lack of awareness at both local and national levels for the need to conserve wildlife and especially predators, hinders conservation efforts, says Rodney Jackson, founder of the Snow Leopard Conservancy based in Sonoma, California, who pioneered the use of the non-invasive camera traps.

“Up to a third of the snow leopard’s range falls along politically sensitive international borders, complicating trans-boundary conservation initiatives,” Jackson says. “Military conflict is taking place across much of the snow leopard’s range, causing immense damage to wildlife through direct loss of species and destruction of habitat, losses to landmines, the demands of displaced peoples for food and fuel, and the encouragement of trade in wildlife.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.