The sight of one's first snow leopard is like a dream. For me it started at 5 o'clock on a cold Friday afternoon in February while we were finishing a markhor survey in the Darvaz range in Tajikistan. Suddenly a group of markhor became very agitated and soon with our spotting scopes we zoomed in on the source of distress: a beautiful snow leopard slowly approaching the markhor herd. Little did I know that the dream would continue the next day, when again I looked into the spotting scope and saw a snow leopard leaping on a markhor.

Panthera, a US-based NGO dedicated to the conservation of wild cats, is engaged in snow leopard conservation efforts in Tajikistan.  Loss of prey together with illegal trade, conflict with humans and lack of conservation capacity have been identified as the main threats to snow leopards. The reduction of Marco Polo sheep, ibex and markhor, the natural prey of the snow leopard, due to poaching and competition with livestock, has had a negative impact on the status of snow leopards in many locations across the Pamirs. This is particularly evident in unmanaged areas where poaching and grazing are prevalent. To the contrary, well-regulated sustainable trophy hunting programs and other forms of hunting can contribute to the conservation of mountain ungulates and indirectly to that of the snow leopard.  In fact, in the framework of a comparative assessment using camera trapping and genetic sampling in three sites with varying levels of oversight/management of ungulate hunting, we saw that regulated and sustainable use of prey populations led to stable and increasing snow leopard populations.

Given the importance of well-managed prey populations, our work is largely focused on supporting the development of community-based wildlife management and hunting organizations across the Pamirs as well as working with existing well-managed private hunting concessions. Our partners include the Committee on Environmental Protection under the Government of Tajikistan, Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, State Agency on Forestry and Hunting of Tajikistan, Nature Protection Department of the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), four private hunting concessions, five community-based conservancies, Wildlife Component of the German GIZ Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Programme and the American Museum of Natural History.

We also collaborate with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Unfortunately, Tajikistan is not yet a member of CITES due to inconsistencies between the CITES framework and domestic legislation, which are in the process of being resolved. Joining CITES would not only make it possible for Tajikistan to have a voice in the decision-making mechanism of the Convention, but also for the international community to better support efforts to curb illegal trophy hunting of CITES-listed species in the country as well as contribute to shaping and supporting community-based wildlife management and hunting initiatives in Tajikistan.

One case at hand is that of the sustainable use of markhor, a species listed since 1992 under CITES Appendix I. During a survey we conducted in 2012 to determine the total population in Tajikistan, we observed 1018 markhor (1). During the winter of 2013, we followed up with a camera trapping survey of snow leopards in one of the markhor conservancies, which revealed the presence in a small but markhor-dense area (320 markhor in an approximately 4000 ha area) of at least six individual snow leopards. Three conservancies have been largely responsible for managing the markhor (and conserving the snow leopard) in this area without any financial gain. While it is important to continue supporting these conservancies in their efforts to address the threats faced by snow leopards and markhor, developing the legal framework to accommodate legal and sustainable use of markhor and a transparent and equitable benefit-sharing mechanism has become of utmost importance to further motivate and reinforce these conservancies.

Tanya Rosen is Panthera Snow Leopard Program Co-ordinator for Tajikistan

References

(1) Michel, S., Michel Rosen, T., Karimov, K., Alidodov, M. and Kholmatov, I. in press. Heptner’s Markhor in Tajikistan: Population Status and Challenges for Conservation. Oryx.

(2) Rosen, T. 2012. Analyzing Gaps and Options for Enhancing Argali Conservation in Central Asia Within The Context of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Report prepared for The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), Bonn, Germany and the GIZ Regional Program on Sustainable Use of Natural Resources in Central Asia