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The Cats of Kyrgyzstan: How the Former Soviet Country Saved Its Snow Leopards

Dec 05, 2016 04:51 AM EST

Animal conservationists around the globe are lauding the efforts of Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev to save the snow leopards dwelling in the mountainous regions of the former Soviet-controlled nation.

Last March, President Atambayev has transformed the Shamshy, a hundred-square-mile, free for all trophy hunting reserve found in the northern Tian Shan Mountains, into a safe sanctuary for the magnificent cat species. The conservation initiative is managed by the government in partnership with local and international conservation NGOs, such as the Snow Leopard Foundation of Kyrgyzstan; the Snow Leopard Trust; and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.

"It's incomprehensible that some Kyrgyz men, descendants of snow leopards, kill the cats and sell their fur to be fashioned into hats and coats. These men can barely be called human. Anyone who shoots a snow leopard shoots his own people. Anyone who sells snow leopard skins sells his own land," President Atambayev said in an interview with National Geographic.

Protecting the snow leopards of Kyrgyzstan is of utmost important, as the country is a melting pot of two snow leopard species - the northern snow leopards from Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, and the southern ones from the Karakoram and Hindu Kush range - which are known to go on long, arduous journeys.

Currently, the mountains of Kyrgyzstan is home to roughly 500 snow leopards, which according to the US-based non-profit Snow Leopard Trust, is a significant 10 percent of the total population worldwide, estimated at between 4,000 and 6,500 in Russia and 11 Central Asian countries.

On the other hand, Whitey Award winner and acting executive director of the Snow Leopard Trust, Charudutt Mishra, is optimistic that, without trophy hunting and the continuous effort from the government to preserve and protect these animals, the snow leopard population in Kyrgyzstan could potentially double or even triple in the next 10 years.

In its October issue of An Ounce of Prevention, wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC estimates that between 221 and 450 snow leopards have been poached every year since 2008, or at least 4 every week.

James Compton, Senior Programme Director of TRAFFIC said, "TRAFFIC's analysis confirms the worrying scale of illegal killing of snow leopards. This urgent wake-up call provides a blueprint for GSLEP action at national and transboundary levels to protect snow leopards from threats posed by poaching and trafficking."

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