After five years of research in the Kyrgyz Alatoo range of the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Biosphere Expeditions has proved the presence of the snow leopard in a location previously thought devoid of the top level predator. Two night-time camera trap images taken on 24 July 2018 show a snow leopard walking across a trail commonly used by local shepherds high in the mountains.
“It may have taken five years, but all our efforts have finally paid off with these two images”, says Dr. Volodymyr Tytar, research scientist of the Tien Shan project. Tytar has been researching the snow leopard for more than 15 years, but this year was special. “When we first arrived here in Kyrgyzstan to begin our work in 2014, we kept being told that we would not find anything in this region. In fact, over the past five years we have recorded quite a number of animals that no one expected, including the snow leopard.”
The Biosphere Expeditions project originated at the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme, where, in 2013, representatives from all twelve Asian countries where the snow leopard roams made a historic pledge to conserve and protect snow leopards and the high mountain habitats they call their home. The pledge was made in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Biosphere Expeditions was part of this significant event and pledged in turn to carry out annual snow leopard conservation expeditions, involving ordinary people from around the world as citizen scientists, as well as building capacity with local people. NABU Kyrgyzstan, funded by Germany’s largest nature conservation organisation NABU (Natuschutzbund = nature conservation association), is the local project partner, with its local anti-poaching unit ‘Grupa Bars’ (group snow leopard) heavily involved in the annual expeditions.
Cited on the IUCN Red List, the snow leopard, like many species, is threatened by poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss. It is estimated that fewer than 7,500 snow leopards remain in the wild. One goal formulated in Bishkek is the 20/20 pledge – to protect 20 snow leopard landscapes that have over 100 breeding adults by 2020, and to promote sustainable development in areas where the species lives.
“This is as big as it gets in terms of top-level conservation news”, says Dr. Tytar, “and it is a privilege to be part of the challenge, together with my colleagues in field science and many others, to preserve this iconic cat. But what we do goes far beyond a single cat species, beautiful as it is in its own right, because successful species conservation is all about creating positive impact well beyond the target species, namely for those people that share their daily lives and landscapes with the snow leopard. As specified in the Conservation Strategy for Snow Leopard in Russia, 2012-2022, much can be achieved in the socio-economic context of snow leopard conservation by ‘…developing collaborations with such internationally known organisations as Biosphere Expeditions…’ (p.81). And this is exactly what we have achieved with our annual citizen science expeditions”.
“Four of the key themes at the Bishkek conference as ways forward in snow leopard conservation were private conservation initiatives, local involvement, capacity-building and ecotourism”, says Dr. Hammer, executive director of Biosphere Expeditions. “Our Tien Shan project ticks all those boxes. Funded by the private donations of our citizen science participants, we involve local people and organisations and bring benefits to herders and other people on the ground. For us, these are the key factors to ensure the future of the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere”.