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Save the Snow Leopard From Extinction

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Field Update 2009:



The district of Chitral, in the extreme north of Pakistan, is hemmed in by lofty peaks of the Hindu Kush range and has scores of main and side valleys with the snow line at around 16,400 feet on the south faces and 14,800 feet on the north. The highest section of this big chain of mountains lies within Chitral. The southern parts of Chitral have enough forest resources but a greater part to the north is barren, without many trees.  The few found in years past have been cut and burned due to a shortage of other sources of fuel. These valleys host wild life like markhor, ibex, Snow Leopards, wolves, foxes, lynx, bears, snow cocks, partridges, quails, kites, vultures, crows, rooks, magpies, crows, falcons,* hawks, and a host of other  species. Under the government Wild Life Rules all kinds of wild life is protected and watched by staff to check for illegal hunting.  The law especially protects Snow Leopards and hunting one is culpable of punishment by imprisonment and fines.

Traditionally the Snow Leopard is not hunted as there is no market for its parts nor is its meat edible under the rules of Islam so the cat is both religiously and legally protected.  It seems to have a good population in this region, and the number seems constant according to the estimates of 76 cats in Chitral Hindu Kush and the adjoining foothills. The estimate was made in 1983-84 by pugmarks, predation reports, occasional sighting etc.  This big cat lives, breeds, feeds and is seen frequently in the Roshgol, Udren and Atahk, valleys of Terich,  [High Hindu Kush] Chitral. The Snow Leopard feeds upon ibex and markhor as well as other smaller wildlife as freely as it desires.  The cat comes down to the valley floors in winter when heavy snow fall compels it to descend to lower altitudes.  While in the lower regions the Snow Leopard poses a threat to domestic animals.

Snow Leopard PhotoThis article is focused on the constraints faced by Snow Leopards in the above named valleys and side valleys of the high Hindukush section and the threats faced by this big cat in this particular region. The traditional knowledge and indigenous approach as well as the info from other distant valleys, where it is also seen but only sporadically, has proven interesting, but the above mentioned valleys have been famous for the presence of this cat due to reports in January 2006 about an old Snow Leopard roaming in the valley at nights. [Cf. google-roshgol]

Though the Wild Life Department Watchers staff carries out regular reconnaissance, vigilance and a rough census each year on the number of ibex and markhor there has been no update of data about Snow Leopards.  In spite of the fact that local poachers do considerable damage to ibex and markhor populations they are subject merely to soft penalties.  Consequently, with the decrease in the number of these prey species, the Snow Leopard has less and less food and thus it becomes compelled to descend to villages where it hunts domestic animals such as goats, oxen etc. This subjects the cat to the most danger because the owner will avenge his loss by trying to kill the Snow Leopard. Even though it has been declared an endangered species that does not deter a man who suffers loss of livestock from killing the cats in retribution. The government does not compensate for any loss sustained by the owners of the cattle or goats. Moreover the terrain is torturous, with high gorges, such that poaching cannot be easily detected.  The wild life watchers do not have modern devices to determine the movement of wild life, especially the big cats.  The poachers pose a threat for the lives of the wild life watchers in the far-flung mountain regions which are the primary habitat of the wild life.

More than four decades ago there were different rules pertaining to big game in this part of the country.   Snow Leopards in this valley were neither killed, then nor now, for their meat or any other part of their bodies, despite it being fashionable or lucrative in other parts of the world. Only once a group of hunters from my own village, I recall, did kill a Snow Leopard when they found it trying to overcome a big ibex. The Snow Leopard was allowed to weaken the ibex first and when they were sure the ibex was no longer able to fight back they opened fire on the big cat and killed it and the ibex as well. The Snow Leopard was skinned and brought to the village.  The cat was stuffed and placed on display as a show of victory. It was my first close view of a Snow Leopard.  It was an unusual size. Some years later another big cat entered a goat pen in a nearby village in winter and was killed by the owner of the house, for the loss it had wrought to the flock of the man concerned. Both cases occurred in the Terich valley of Chitral in the early 60s.

My first close encounter with a live Snow Leopard occurred when I was in my early 20s, when I was out for a quail hunt with a shotgun. It was early in the morning but the sun was already up and I was waiting, just sitting over a rock, looking down the side of the slope.  Feeling too cold, I changed my position and just then saw a Snow Leopard ambling at about 50 feet from me on the avalanche glacier with its long tail stretched out equally as long as its body.  It was heading towards the upper slopes of the valley and its spots were distinct and very noticeable in the early sun light. This was my first close sight of a Snow Leopard and I watched it move along very gently and gracefully. I did not move from my position but watched the cat’s gait as it walked over the glacier.  It was a good stretch of flat ground so I enjoyed the sight for about ¾ of a mile when the cat finally disappeared behind a ridge.

Snow Leopard PicsAbout 15 years ago a Snow Leopard attacked another goat pen in a nearby village and was reported to Wild Life staff that contacted the Snow Leopard Trust volunteer at Islamabad.  The great cat was then tranquilized, transported and then released in Chitral National Park.

Goat herders and pastoral communities spend the summer months in the distant valleys of this region and keep rifles to protect their flocks.  They are reported to shoot wolves and big cats whenever their flocks are attacked but the news is kept secret for fear of the Police. They keep their weapons concealed in secret slots in the grazing grounds and slopes. In the old days whenever a big cat was seen entering a summer pasture, or after an attack on the flock, the herders did not have rifles.  They used traditional methods of scaring off the cat by beacon lights.  That is by blazing a big fire day and night and this fire and smoke was typically enough to scare away the Snow Leopards. Now the fire wood stock has been almost entirely depleted from the valleys and such a fire beacon system is no longer possible.  Rifles are a handy alternative, secretly kept, and used to keep the flocks safe.

Three years ago I received a report in May that a Snow Leopard was seen dead in an avalanche glacier. Some boys were up on the hills to collect firewood when one of them saw a Snow Leopard in a sitting position, in the middle of the glacier.  The group signaled to each other and ran down as fast as they could, for they feared an attack.  They told the story to their friends in the village and the following day another party went up to check but found the Snow Leopard sitting as it was on the previous day.  Thinking something amiss they moved closer, checked with binoculars, and found its lower body sunk deep in the ice.  Upon later discovery, they found the Snow Leopard dead. A winter avalanche had carried the cat away.  By the beginning of the summer the snow had melted and the upper part of the body was visible but the rear end was still encased in the avalanche debris.

Some valleys of the High Hindu Kush mountain system i.e. Roshgol, Udren, Atahk, etc. have the largest expanse of glaciers of the region.  They drain into the main Terich valley. These valleys have been favored Snow Leopard habitat since time immemorialial for their rugged and vast wilderness, richness in flora, abundance of ibex as well as the local peoples’ compliance with game Laws.  But times have changed and now the big cat is in real trouble due to:

  1. snow leopard pictureGreat increases in human population in the Terich valley and unemployment.
  2. Over- use and cutting of trees in the wild life habitats, for use as fire wood due to extreme cold and windy winters.  The growth of human population is in close proximity to the largest glaciers of the region with no other source of energy available.
  3. Poor enforcement of wild life control systems.
  4. Easy access by people to weapons for hunting.
  5. Absence of recreational facilities for young men who turn to sport hunting and cause damage to all wild life.   

It is to be noted that this region of North Pakistan gets rain and snow only in the winter.  The clouds come from the West; Caspian and Mediterranean Seas.  This snowfall is heavier some years than others, so the intensity of winters varies, but there is no such authentic data about rainfall. In summer this region remains very dry from May to November and this has an adverse effect on the life and products of the region where double crops are grown up to 7000 feet and above that only one crop can be grown each year. The human population explosion, small size plots for farming, one crop a year, long and severe cold winters, low literacy rate, non-availability of medical or health facilities etc. have made life too hard for the local people and therefore poaching is increasing day by day to aid their survival.

The arrival of Snow Leopards in the vicinity of the villages in the Terich valley, at the base of Roshgol valley, is an age-old phenomenon where the Snow Leopard announces its presence in December to February.  Sighting vary, on and off, as the higher parts of the hills are covered in deep snow and Snow Leopards know the routes to navigate the slopes in winters to avoid avalanche sites. The Snow Leopard reports its arrival in the very cold season by its deep-throated calls at night from certain ridges on its route, staying at the cats’ favorite spots for some days.  They often travel in twos and frighten children by their calls at nights.  Normally they don’t attack domestic animals but, driven by hunger for longer periods, they attack goats outside the villages. They get most of their sustenance from the ibex flocks after much careful stalking. They are not a danger to humans, as they never attack humans even if they come across them on the mountain tracks.  There has never been a record of an attack on humans in the history of the region.

* In the old days of Chitral hawks and falcons were trapped and trained for hunting but in modern days a special kind of this species known as Churkh is caught under license and exported to UAE.
Research & written by:

Professor Rahmat Karim Baig 
Government College Chitral, Pakistan.
E. Mail: karimbaigcl@yahoo.com
Website: www.hindukushadventureguides.com  

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457


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