Snow leopards are majestic creatures.
Fewer than 7,000 Panthera uncia are expected to persist over Asia’s high mountains, according to the red list of threatened species. A fifth of them dwell in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains, the world’s third-highest environment after the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. The leopards appear to be thriving here, despite the odds.
“The situation with snow leopards in Tajikistan is hopeful because the population is clearly rising,” says Khalil Karimov, a wildlife biologist and scientific adviser to Tajikistan’s Association of Nature Conservation Organizations (Ancot). “We somewhere between 350 and 450 cats, while the precise number is impossible to determine given to the leopards’ nature and the secluded location in which they live.”
Tajikistan, a landlocked, mountainous country bordering China and Afghanistan, was the Soviet Union’s easternmost outpost for decades.
When the USSR fell apart in 1991, the country descended into a five-year civil war that claimed the lives of 100,000 to 300,000 people and caused a million more to flee their homes. The country’s rare mountain ungulates — Asiatic ibex, Marco Polo sheep, markhor, and urial – were hunted to near extinction as a result of the leopards’ predation.
However, in recent years, a network of grassroots initiatives has reversed this – and other species’ – loss, and Tajikistan now has five community-run conservancies covering a total of 150,000 hectares (580 square miles), with more in various stages of formation.
The M–Sayod markhor reserve in the western Pamirs, with its 35,000 hilly hectares bordering northern Afghanistan, is one of these success stories. Since its founding in 2005, the family-run reserve has experienced a tenfold increase of Bukharan markhor (Capra falconeri heptneri), a wild goat with iconic spiral horns.
“We used to hunt markhor for meat, and we had no idea they were endangered,” says Khudoydod Mulloyorov, whose father, Devlatkhan, founded the reserve. “Back then, life was so harsh that people hunted to survive.” Afghans would even cross the river to hunt snow leopards and sell their fur.”
More markhor implies more snow leopards, their major predator.
In 2013, six were found here, making it the world’s greatest density at the time. In 2016, a team returned and discovered ten cats in the same place.
When asked about the leopards, Mulloyorov, a quiet, reserved man, bursts out laughing. “I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen a snow leopard, but it makes me feel alive every time,” he says.
Wildlife tourism is essentially non-existent in Tajikistan, in contrast to countries like India. Its proximity to Afghanistan, as well as an unfounded dread of “the Stans,” deters all save the most daring. Tajikistan’s snow leopards have an unexpected saviour, with little cash from tourism and few significant foreign contributors.
“Foreign trophy hunting provides 99 percent of the funds for conservation in Tajikistan,” says Karimov. “In the past, people would go into the mountains and slaughter anything they could find, but now they protect them because they have monetary worth.”
According to Karimov, international trophy hunters contribute millions of pounds to the Tajik economy each year, with annual quotas for shooting markhor, ibex, wild boar, Marco Polo sheep, and urials imposed by the government.
Three of Tajikistan’s 12 markhor licences were awarded to the M-Sayod conservancy in 2021, with hunters spending between £100,000 and £145,000 to shoot one goat, with 30% of the proceeds going straight to the reserve. This revenue is a lifeline for many in this remote mountainous region, where jobs are rare and most families have at least one person working in Russia (a flow of money impacted first by Covid and now by the invasion of Ukraine).
“There would be no conservation here if trophy hunting didn’t exist,” Mulloyorov argues. “We employ 20 people and enhance local infrastructure thanks to hunting.”
Ismatullo Habibuloev, the village chief of Zhigar, agrees. “This year, the conservancy installed bear-proof fencing around our fields and sponsored a new medical centre.” We have few other sources of income here, and the communal benefits are immense. People now place a high value on our natural resources.”
An ex-hunter named Mahan Atabaev maintains a 92,000-hectare reserve on the Alichur plateau, a predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz region in the far north-east of the country. It is one of the hardest inhabited areas on Earth, with an average altitude of 4,000 metres and winter temperatures often reaching -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit).
When the reserve was founded in 2012, 106 Marco Polo sheep – the world’s largest sheep – were registered. There are now almost 500 of them. Ibex numbers have also climbed.
Snow leopards have thrived in the same way as Marco Polo and ibex have thrived at M-Sayod. None of the cats were seen here in 2011. Nine were caught on camera traps in 2017.
The average monthly income in the village of Alichur – for the few people who do have work is £30. The majority of the population are subsistence ranchers, therefore the hunting restriction was first unwelcome. “At first, people were against us because we are a nomadic people who hunt,” explains Atabaev.
“However, after the first trophy hunters arrived in 2014, we purchased 120 sacks of bread and coal for the village, and people realised the benefits.”
The climatic catastrophe, not poaching, is currently the greatest threat to Tajikistan’s biodiversity. A third of Tajikistan’s 8,000 glaciers are expected to vanish totally by 2050. The Pamirs’ climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable as a result of these worrisome glacial retreats, with longer, colder winters and drier summers. Last winter, the temperature on the Alichur plateau dropped to -63°C, killing 700 yaks and 1,000 sheep in Bash Gumbez, a settlement of 44 houses. Conditions like these spell doom for the wild herds on which snow leopards rely for survival.