International Snow Leopard Day in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Wakhan has been identified repeatedly by international authorities as a priority area for snow leopard conservation. To protect this vast landscape, WCS built a program based on scientific research, community governance building, improving the legal environment, and building government and local capacity for co-management of the Wakhan. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

By Richard Paley and Peter Zahler
October 23, 2016

The snow leopard is flagship species for one of the last, great wilderness regions on earth — the spectacular mountain ranges of Asia. Here in what has been called “the roof of the world,” the snow leopard rules supreme, a skilled hunter perfectly adapted to the harsh, cold conditions of its alpine home.

Sadly, despite survival skills such as spectacular leaping ability and coloring that camouflages them to near invisibility on the rocky alpine slopes of their native habitat, the snow leopard faces growing threats across the enormous swath of Asia (roughly 3 million square kilometers) containing potential habitat.

The high and rugged mountain home of the snow leopard provides a level of protection through its extreme remoteness. Here in this rocky alpine habitat, the snow leopard and local human pastoralists eke out an existence in near-isolation from the rest of the world. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

There are five major threats facing snow leopards in the wild. Poaching for its’ skin is foremost but body parts to supply the growing traditional medicinal trade are increasingly sought across snow leopard range states. Loss of natural wild prey (mostly wild sheep and goats, but also marmots and smaller animals) is another major threat and can lead to retaliatory killing by shepherds and villagers when snow leopards turn to livestock. General disturbance and habitat loss is also a growing threat as more and more people move into snow leopard habitat.

Poaching for the fur trade is a significant threat to snow leopards; this specimen is from a fur shop in Kabul. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

In 2006, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) embarked on the first-ever program to comprehensively and holistically address all of the threats facing snow leopards in a key landscape — in this case, the Wakhan region of northern Afghanistan. First with critical support from USAID, and then from UNDP-GEF, the program has adopted a broad range of conservation strategies that encompass scientific research, legal protection and threat mitigation.

The snow leopard lives above the treeline across the highest mountains in Asia — one of the more remote and rugged landscapes in the world, as shown here in Afghanistan’s Wakhan. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

WCS began this program by building awareness about the importance of snow leopard conservation in every community (and in every school) within Wakhan, while simultaneously helping the Government of Afghanistan draft many of the environmental laws involving protection of wildlife and habitat. WCS then helped create an over-arching community governance institution — the Wakhan-Pamir Association — to make conservation decisions for the district.

A critical part of successful conservation in Afghanistan is input, buy-in, and full participation by local communities. Here a WCS staff member is learning about concerns related to local climate change vulnerability. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

This work culminated in 2014 with the declaration of the district of Wakhan as the country’s second ever protected area, Wakhan National Park. This vast area of 10,985 square kilometers — 20 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park — is protecting more than 70 percent of the snow leopard’s range in Afghanistan.

The enormous Wakhan National Park now protects not only snow leopards but wolves, brown bears, Marco Polo sheep, urial sheep, and Himalayan ibex. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

More than 50 community rangers have been trained and deployed and now work with WCS staff to survey key areas of snow leopard habitat. The rangers provide critical information on snow leopard presence, the status of key prey species such as the huge Marco Polo sheep, urial (a smaller wild sheep relative), and ibex, and areas of potential conflict with local livestock herders.

Community rangers placing a camera trap — a remote camera activated by movement — near recent cat sign. Local rangers now run the camera trap program, also in addition to collecting critical information about wildlife and enforcing anti-poaching regulations. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

This information has directly informed interventions on the ground by helping WCS and its community partners to target priority locations for livestock protection. In the past year more than 122 corrals were modified to provide complete protection from snow leopards and other predators, thereby mitigating the major threat of retaliatory killing of snow leopards in response to loss of livestock.

This photo shows a community meeting to build local capacity to co-manage the new Wakhan National Park. WCS works closely with every community in Wakhan, and helped create the Wakhan-Pamir Association, bringing communities across the landscape together to make coordinated decisions about resource management. Credit: WCS Afghanistan Program.

In recent years, WCS has fit snow leopards in Afghanistan with satellite tracking collars, yielding valuable data on the species’ ecology and behavior. We are now using these data to develop a habitat preference model for snow leopards based on satellite telemetry data from animals that have been collared. The model provides vital insights into the ecology of snow leopards — including annual home range, intensity of habitat utilization, and predation behavior. These insights will help WCS and its partners identify important areas for future conservation action and protection.

Snow leopard with GPS collar. The collar provides critical information about movements, ecology, and threats to this mysterious and enigmatic big cat. Credit: Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

Furthermore, nearly 5,000 camera trap photos, collected by a specialized team of community rangers since 2010, have been examined by experts and a number of individual snow leopards have been clearly identified in specific locations. Using computer software designed for the purpose, this information — currently being calculated — will enable the first scientifically robust estimate of snow leopard populations in this region.

One of over 5,000 camera trap images of snow leopards taken by community rangers. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

These strategies for snow leopard conservation will be critical elements in the management plan for Wakhan National Park, which is currently being developed with the full participation of local communities and relevant government agencies.

Community members standing in front of newly completed Wakhan ranger station, holding ranger uniforms they were trained and hired to create. Credit: WCS Afghanistan.

Conservation is a complicated and long-term process. The work in Afghanistan is an example of how long-term strategies to effectively and simultaneously engage on multiple fronts can result in real conservation benefits for snow leopards — and for the isolated and previously marginalized people of the Wakhan.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — 
Richard Paley is Director for the Afghanistan Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Peter Zahler is the Snow Leopard Program Coordinator and Regional Director for Asia at WCS.