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Kyrgyzstan strives to save snow leopard

A snow leopard prowls in the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan in October.

By Alisher Karimov / 26 Nov 2013

The snow leopard's dwindling population in Kyrgyzstan has the country looking for ways to keep the species flourishing.

In October, the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum took place in Bishkek, drawing participants from the 12 countries comprising the snow leopard's habitat, biologists and environmentalists. One of their major concerns was the animal's fate in Kyrgyzstan.

"The threat of its extinction needs to become a priority for the international community and its preservation our collective responsibility," Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev said during the forum about the animal, which Kyrgyzstan and the International Union for Conservation of Nature have put on their respective lists of endangered species.

About 4,080 to 6,590 snow leopards exist in the wild, with Kyrgyzstan having 150 to 500, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Its population in Kyrgyzstan, though, has shrunk by half in 20 years, Atambayev said.

At the conclusion of the forum, participants approved a 2014-2020 global programme, with a projected budget of US $190m (9.2 billion KGS), for preserving the snow leopard habitat in the 12 countries. The countries are expected to contribute more than half of the funding with the rest coming from international organisations.
Multi-faceted approach

Forum attendees approved a Global Environment Facility (GEF)/UNDP project to open a future Khan-Tengri National Park. The 187,000ha projected park will be next to the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve, home to about 25 leopards.

Environmentalists regard a holistic approach, rather than one focused narrowly on the snow leopard, as the solution.

"The snow leopard stands at the very top of the food chain," Olga Pereladova, director of the WWF Central Asian Programme, said. "The presence and development of its population are indicators of the sustainability and normal existence of the entire biosystem. Joint work ... will protect more than 40% of the snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan."

Kyrgyz officials have a complementary approach, too.

"Kyrgyzstan has approved a national strategy for the preservation of the snow leopard over the next 10 years, as well as a plan of action for its implementation, which will require political will," Vice Prime Minister Tayyrbek Sarpashev said.

Azat Alamanov, Bishkek environmentalist and consultant to the WWF, said the national strategy contemplates changes to the law, co-operation with communities that co-exist with the snow leopard, and the creation of sanctuaries and reserves. He also pushed for hunting regulations.

"It's essential to impose a legal moratorium on hunting trophy species that snow leopards eat," Alamanov said. "Hunters are allowed to take 70 Marco Polo sheep per year nationwide, which provides 3.6m KGS (US $72,000) in hunting license fees. A moratorium wouldn't be a terrible fiscal loss but would be a great step forward in preserving the snow leopard."

Poachers also need to be stopped.

The Kyrgyz fine for killing a snow leopard is almost 500,000 KGS (US $9,950), but poaching continues because the animal's habitat is vast, mountainous and hard to patrol.
An overview of wildlife protection

Saving bio-diversity is key to saving the species, Alamanov said, though money is still short.

"The [park-opening] project's budget during 2013-2015 is US $950,000 (46.1m KGS)," he said. "That's enough to cover the essentials and to solve basic problems. But we still have to work with local communities and carry out scientific observations. We need to find the resources for that."

"Protecting wildlife is a systemic process," Mukhtar Musayev, director of the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve, said, who urged national authorities to work with local communities. "You won't solve the problem with fines alone. With the help of international organisations, we tried to create different ways for locals to make money ... like raising yaks and other animals."

Preserving the endangered species is a task for all countries with snow leopards and for international organisations, Mikhail Rogozhin, author and director of the film Hope for Survival, which chronicles the efforts to restore the snow leopard's population, said.

"This is a beautiful but endangered creature," he said. "It needs to be saved at any cost. Hopefully, the efforts by organisations like the GEF and WWF and by rangers, scientists and nature lovers will not be in vain."

(Courtesy of Central Asia


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