The snowy peaks of the Pamir mountains are home to a vulnerable and gravely misunderstood species – snow leopards. These shy cats thrive in the cold and high-altitude mountainous regions in 12 countries in Asia. However, in the Pamir mountains of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region in Tajikistan, they are not always so welcome when they venture into communities and attack domestic animals.
Though fierce and carnivorous, the snow leopards are generally non-aggressive towards humans. Nonetheless, snow leopards are sometimes targeted by humans in retaliation for attacking livestock or illegal poaching for sport or trade of their body parts. The human-snow leopard conflict poses a serious threat to the survival of this species. This is why the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) is working to help communities understand and protect these endangered animals.
Climate change and human activities such as deforestation and overgrazing are degrading the snow leopard’s habitat as well as that of their natural prey. As a result, instances of snow leopards entering villages and attacking livestock for food are increasing, bringing with them great human-snow leopard conflict. AKAH is addressing this conflict through its “Protecting Snow Leopard Populations through Effective Habitat Management” project, funded by the Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Fund for the Environment. Following extensive research, the project comprises three integrated components to decrease the level of conflict in targeted villages in GBAO: protecting livestock, raising community awareness and support for conservation, and advocacy initiatives at the national level.
As a direct and immediate measure to protect livestock, AKAH worked with communities to strengthen animal sheds in the Ghund and Roshtqala valleys building corrals (pens) to keep domestic animals safe from snow leopard attacks. AKAH provided livestock owners with wire mesh and training on how to install these to reinforce their animal sheds and protect their domestic animals from attack.
In parallel, AKAH built community awareness around snow leopard conservation and worked with partners to introduce a compensation mechanism in case of attack to reduce retaliation by livestock owners against snow leopards. Farmer Simakov Mamadnasim said, “In addition to speaking to us about why we need to release the snow leopards [caught entering animal sheds], the project team also provided us with wire mesh, and now I have this new animal shed. It is protected from all the sides as I have installed the wire mesh. Although I don’t have many cattle now, I know that the little I have are all protected from the snow leopard.”
AKAH project manager Nikkadam Nazarov explains that the integrated approach has been key to addressing all the different facets of the problem. “Over 500 community members attended our awareness sessions, and a volunteer network was established by recruiting local residents from these rural villages to regularly report snow leopard attacks on livestock. This allows our partner, the Association of Hunters, to respond quickly with compensation to farmers who have lost livestock. The snow leopards caught around the villages were safely captured and released back into their natural habitats without being harmed. Those that were harmed unfortunately were taken to the veterinary hospital in Murgab for treatment.”
While AKAH has made significant progress towards building community awareness and involvement in protecting this valuable species, this is just the beginning of a larger approach to ensure systemic change. To achieve this, AKAH is engaging more stakeholders and partners to contribute at a broader scale. It organised a conference in Dushanbe in 2019, which was attended by over 50 snow leopard experts and activists from across the country. The conference hosted partners of various organisations to collaborate and further research on this endangered species. This was an opportunity to strengthen relationships with the state institutions as well as other international organisations working on snow leopard conservation in Tajikistan. From this conference, more attention was brought to the project and there was an updated action plan for snow leopard conservation moving forward.