Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Snow Leopards Face Extinction

Unscrupulous hunters and traders are making a killing selling endangered species on to the wealthy owners of private zoos.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Kyrgyz ecologists have warned that poaching is leading to the extinction of the rare snow leopard after an alleged cub smuggling operation was foiled at the republic’s border.


A Russian circus troupe, which had just finished an engagement in the capital Bishkek, was stopped and searched by ecological service workers and police on February 24.


The internal affairs ministry has now launched a criminal case against the troupe, which is accused of hiding two snow leopard cubs in the bottom of a trailer in an attempt to smuggle them out of Kyrgyzstan.


The director of the circus - who is a Kazak citizen - was questioned by police before being released on the condition that she will not leave the country.


The suspect maintains that the cubs - which apparently cost 3,000 US dollars - were bought to be trained as show animals. But Vladimir Radchenko, a Bishkek rare breeds expert, who runs a conservation organisation called Leopard, doubts this was the case.


“Snow leopards are very hard to train and they would suffer greatly in a constantly-moving environment such as a circus,” he told IWPR. “Also, they cannot endure a warm climate as they are used to cold, high mountains.”


Bayan Kadyrov, deputy head of the state agency that protects local wildlife, suspects that the circus toured the republic purely to buy the cubs and re-sell them outside the country.


“The troupe earned only 8,000 dollars in Bishkek, while selling just one snow leopard cub would have netted at least 10,000 dollars elsewhere,” he claimed.


Wealthy Russians and Central Asians often establish their own zoos, and snow leopards are considered to be the most desirable and exclusive of exhibits. “According to our information, a snow leopard could sell for up to 25,000 dollars on the black market,” Kadyrov said.


Local law prohibits the sale of the species and its removal from the country. The latter offence, considered the more serious, carries a prison sentence of up to five years.


The authorities have foiled three such operations since 2001, and sent the captured cubs to a rehabilitation centre on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. The cruel traps favoured by the illegal traders often cause such damage to the cubs’ delicate paws that they can no longer hunt for themselves and have to be cared for by humans.


But the battle to save the leopard has not been helped by corruption. While the authorities have been working to protect and sustain the dwindling population, certain officials have seen it as means of making money.


Last year, four government officials - including a member of the Kyrgyz National Security Service - were caught red-handed trying to sell snow leopard cubs to interior ministry personnel posing as potential buyers.


As a result of increased poaching, the number of animals has fallen dramatically in recent years. Wildlife experts estimate that only 3,000 remain in their natural habitats - the mountainous regions of China, Mongolia, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan.


Torsten Harder, a specialist from Germany who heads the Snow Leopard Conservation Programme which has been operating in Kyrgyzstan since 1999, told IWPR that only a decade ago, the republic had boasted the second-largest population in the world.


He estimates that there are now only around 200 snow leopards in the country, saying, “Several years ago, there were around five times that number in the Kyrgyz mountains - a third of the entire world population.”


This worries not just ecologists and law-enforcement officers, but also mountain people.


Kapar Jandraliev is a hunter from the Atbashyn region, the most remote and mountainous part of the country. He believes the poaching of rare animals has now reached unprecedented levels, saying, “In all my life, I have never seen such an outrage.”


Snow leopard skins are seen as symbols of national honour and prosperity - and the Kyrgyz and Kazak peoples have traditionally shown great respect for the rare animals.


“Kyrgyz have lived in a wild environment for centuries, and they understand the importance of looking after natural riches,” Harder told IWPR. “The concept of poaching came later, in Soviet times, when the use of firearms became widespread.”


Harder believes that the decline of the species is linked to human intrusion into previously inaccessible mountain regions, as well as the appetites of rich collectors at home and abroad.


“We have found and destroyed more than 200 traps recently, which were without doubt set to capture snow leopards,” he said.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek.


More IWPR's Global Voices