Elu­sive snow leop­ards’ re­turn brings hope

Con­ser­va­tion ef­forts in a re­mote re­gion marked by poverty could one day draw eco­tourists

China Daily (USA) - - TRAVEL | LIFE - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in­Wakhan, Afghanistan

In a pic­turesque cor­ner of Afghanistan, a unique con­ser­va­tion ef­fort has helped bring the elu­sive snow leop­ard back from the brink and given hope to one of the poor­est and most iso­lated communities on earth.

The leop­ards range across the snowy moun­tains of a dozen coun­tries in Cen­tral and South Asia, but their num­bers had de­clined in re­cent decades as hunters sought their spot­ted pelts and farm­ers killed them to pro­tect live­stock. Now they ap­pear to be thriv­ing, thanks to a seven-year pro­gram and a newly de­clared na­tional park.

Sci­en­tists who have been track­ing the shy leop­ards es­ti­mate there are up to 140 cats in the Wakhan Na­tional Park, es­tab­lished two years ago across 1 mil­lion square hectares (4,200 square miles). Stephane Ostrowski, a spe­cial­ist with theNew York-based Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety, says that’s a healthy and sus­tain­able num­ber, and in­di­cates that other species like the Siberian ibex and golden mar­mot— the leop­ards’ main prey— are also do­ing well.

The WCS be­lieves global leop­ard num­ber­scould be­much­higher than a pre­vi­ous up­per es­ti­mate of 7,500, af­ter data gath­ered by Ostrowski and oth­ers showed there could be more than 8,000 in just 44 per­cent of the an­i­mal’s known range. The World Wildlife Fund lists the species as “en­dan­gered.”

His find­ings are the re­sult of re­search car­ried out in one of the most hard-to-reach places on earth. TheWakhan cor­ri­dor is nes­tled high in the Hindu Kush moun­tain range and cut off by snow for most of the year. The 15-year-old war with the Tal­iban rages 30 kilo­me­ters (18 miles) to the south, and the nearby bor­ders with Ta­jik­istan, Pak­istan and China are usu­ally closed.

The United Na­tions Devel­op­ment Pro­gram funds and over­sees all the WCS ac­tiv­i­ties in the Wakhan, and will pro­vide $3 mil­lion for the snow leop­ard pro­ject over the next two years.

Ostrowski and the other foreign and Afghan sci­en­tists camp in yel­low tents in the Sarkand Val­ley for months on end, mon­i­tor­ing and main­tain­ing a far-flung net­work of cam­eras and traps. In just one year, they col­lected around 5,000 im­ages of 38 in­di­vid­ual cats. They man­aged to cap­ture four leop­ards — one of them twice — and were able to fit them with col­lars and track them with GPS. They hope to catch another two by the end of the year.

They’ve learned that snow leop­ards range widely. Like house cats, they mark their ter­ri­tory by spray­ing and scratch­ing the ground, but un­like their dis­tant rel­a­tives, they don’t mind get­ting wet.

“These cats can cross big rivers and swim in ex­tremely cold wa­ter,” Ostrowski said. One fe­male crossed the Amu Darya river into Ta­jik­istan, stayed a cou­ple of weeks and then re­turned.

The snow leop­ards have ben­e­fited from con­ser­va­tion pro­grams go­ing back to 2009, when the WCS be­gan build­ing en­closed cor­rals with mesh roofs to pro­tect the sheep, goats and cows that are the back­bone of the lo­cal econ­omy.

It was the first step to­ward bring­ing mod­ern con­ser­va­tion tech­niques to Wakhan, where the pop­u­la­tion of around 17,000 lives off sub­sis­tence farm­ing. In one of the poor­est re­gions of one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries, the leop­ards had long been seen as a men­ace.

Has­san Beg says he lost 22 sheep and goats in one night a few years ago when a snow leop­ard got into his un­cov­ered cor­ral, and his cousin Saeed said he was at­tacked by one late at night. Has­san has since built his own roof over the en­clo­sure us­ing tree branches. “We can’t kill them,” he said, “so I just­make sure it won’t hap­pen again.”

A pres­i­den­tial de­cree ban­ning all hunt­ing coun­try­wide was is­sued in 2005, but the sci­en­tists re­cently found a car­cass with a bul­let in its head. Some 400 kilo­me­ters (250 miles) to the south­west, at a crowded mar­ket in the cap­i­tal, Kabul, a shop­keeper dis­creetly pro­duced a snow leop­ard pelt with a long cylin­dri­cal tai­landa face dis­torted by crude taxi­dermy. He wanted $1,800 for it.

“We re­ceive re­ports from all of the prov­inces where hunt­ing is go­ing on il­le­gally, whether it is be­cause of poverty, whether it is for hobby, whether it is for sell­ing it at a higher price in the mar­ket,” said Mostapha Za­her, di­rec­tor gen­eral of theNa­tion­alEn­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Agency.

But back in­Wakhan, the con­ser­va­tion ef­forts ap­pear to be catch­ing on.

At Qala-i-Panja High School, where stu­dents say they’ve never heard of the in­ter­net, they’ve em­braced mod­ern no­tions of wildlife preser­va­tion. A snow leop­ard cub stares down from a poster af­fixed to the oth­er­wise bare walls.

“Since the ban on hunt­ing was in­tro­duced, the num­bers of wild an­i­mals are in­creas­ing here and that is at­tract­ing foreign tourists,” said Simah, a 17-year-old who like many Afghans has no sur­name. “That can be good for the econ­omy of Afghanistan.”

The snow leop­ard is the na­tional park’s star at­trac­tion, even if most vis­i­tors are un­likely to see one. But the re­gion also boasts wolves, brown bears, red foxes, and the longhornedMarco Polo sheep — named for the 13th cen­tury Ital­ian ex­plorer who spot­ted one on his jour­ney to the Far East.

Only around 100 vis­i­tors reach Wakhan ev­ery year, most en­ter­ing from Ta­jik­istan dur­ing the sum­mer months. Wakhan’s poverty and iso­la­tion has in­su­lated it from decades of war, but has also de­terred all but the most ad­ven­tur­ous trav­el­ers.

French­man Jo­ce­lyn Guit­ton, an EU diplo­mat, ar­rived in August with plans to trek to the cor­ri­dor’s north­east and visit Kyr­gyz no­mads. He al­lows that it’s “off the beaten track,” but says he hopes tourism can bring “vis­i­bil­ity and good prac­tices” to the re­gion.

Since declar­ing the na­tional park two years ago, the gov­ern­ment has been hold­ing public meet­ings known as shuras through­out Wakhan to cul­ti­vate lo­cal sup­port for the idea and to re­as­sure res­i­dents who ini­tially feared they might lose their land.

“It’s anew­con­cept for these peo­ple and it’s a new con­cept for Afghanistan, so it takes time,” said Ash­ley Vosper, a land­scape ex­pert at WCS who has taken part in the meet­ings.

Vosper says the park ac­tu­ally pro­vides “bril­liant pro­tec­tion” to res­i­dents­byen­sur­ing that­nooneelse­can usetheir­land­while­bringin­ge­co­nomic devel­op­ment to the re­gion. “It can be a nice two-way bal­ance,” he said.

Za­her hopes thatWakhan can one day ri­val Afghanistan’s only other na­tional park, in the cen­tral Bamiyan prov­ince, which at­tracts thou­sands of tourists each year to the crys­tal blue lakes of Band-i-Amir.

“When peace re­turns to Afghanistan— an­dit will, as­nowar­lasts for­ever — Wakhan has great po­ten­tial for eco­tourism, for peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in ar­chae­ol­ogy, an­thro­pol­ogy, re­searchers in­ter­ested in Afghanistan, peo­ple in­ter­ested in glacial melt, moun­taineer­ing, the en­vi­ron­ment.”

PHO­TOS BY MAS­SOUD HOSSAINI / AP

Em­ploy­ees of the New York-basedWildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety in­stall a trap to cap­ture snow leop­ards, in Sarkand vil­lage, Wakhan dis­trict of Badakhshan prov­ince in Afghanistan.

Afghan stu­dent Simah talks to her class­mates in Qala-i-Panja vil­lage. In this re­mote cor­ner of Afghanistan, a unique con­ser­va­tion ef­fort has helped bring the elu­sive snow leop­ard back from the brink.

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