The first time I saw the magnificent snow leopard was on film. BBC’s Planet Earth series aired some incredibly beautiful footage of a snow leopard stalking its prey in the wild. On the craggy cliffs of Chitral, the animal leaped over the rocks in search of a Markhor.
Never before had the elusive leopard been caught hunting on film — and this was over 10 years ago.
The second time I saw a snow leopard was many years later, in the summer of 2012. I was walking around Nathiagali’s Lalazar Wildlife Park and I saw the animal sitting listlessly inside a bird-cage.
I was horrified to see this magnificent creature in such terrible condition. It had been kept in captivity since it was a cub.
"Once you take a wild animal out of nature as an infant, you cannot return it," Dr Ali Nawaz, Pakistan’s foremost expert on the snow leopard, explained the problem to me.
According to him, snow leopards, in particular, develop their muscles and strength while learning how to hunt from their mothers. These developments take place in the wild, while the animal is still young, so a leopard that grows up in captivity develops very differently.
Dr Nawaz is not a proponent of captive animals, and would rather concentrate on saving them in the wild. I met him in Islamabad a month after he received the Whitley Fund for Nature award, known as the “Green Oscar”, for his work with the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF). A prestigious international nature conservation prize, the award is a recognition of “Pakistan’s efforts on the conservation front.”
Although Nawaz himself hails from Rajanpur in the south, his interest in snow leopards developed after he completed his PhD in wildlife ecology.
For four years in Norway, he conducted research on a 30-year-old Scandinavian Brown Bear project — a milestone that influenced his passion for the conservation of large carnivores, like the snow leopard.
The last 200
Snow leopards are solitary and secretive by nature and, therefore, scarcely seen in the wild. They are also extremely difficult to track or survey. Today, it is estimated that around 3,500 to 7,000 wild snow leopards exist in the mountain regions of Central Asia, and around 600 to 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world.
From these, it is estimated that only 200 snow leopards exist in Pakistan’s northern mountains, including the Hindu Kush, Himalayan, Karakoram and Pamir Mountains across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
The IUCN’s Red List has already classified snow leopards as ‘most endangered’. But despite their importance — for they are considered an ‘iconic flagship species of the mountains of Central Asia’ in Pakistan — they continue to face threats.
Poachers kill them for their furs, and herders often attack the animals in retaliation for their attacks on their livestock.
Take a look: Illegal hunting – leopards now threatened species
In addition, the decreased number of Markhors, their natural prey, habitat loss and fragmentation all add up to making their future survival uncertain.
Snow leopard conservation
Upon his return to Pakistan, Dr Nawaz began working on carnivore conservation in the country. His interaction with the International Snow Leopard Trust let him to establish the SLF in 2005, with a mission to work on snow leopard conservation.
Maintaining his focus on research, Nawaz began working with rural communities in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan. He brought together people, NGO and government workers in a unified effort to develop a management plan for the snow leopard’s habitat.
He found that each family lost an average of three animals annually to snow leopard or wolf attacks. Meanwhile, livestock losses due to diseases were five to 10 times higher. Nawaz decided to address this issue by introducing livestock vaccination and veterinary services in remote valleys to encourage communities to tolerate snow leopard attacks on their livestock.
He also introduced livestock insurance programmes in which each family becomes a member of a community fund, and pays a premium. The fund is managed by a committee and hands out compensations, depending on the volume of the fund and the magnitude of the losses.
The project began in Chitral with 12 communities, and then expanded to seven valleys of Giglit Balitistan. The vaccination programme proved so successful that only a year after its initiation, 50 per cent of the animals had been saved.
After three years of regular vaccination — administered twice each year — the losses went down by 80 per cent, and in some places, even 100 per cent. For Nawaz, this impact was huge. His proposed agreement with the communities was working — in exchange for helping save five animals from diseases — the communities were willing to tolerate one loss caused by the snow leopard.
The project also helped communities to improve the corals where they kept their livestock. The traditional coral has stone walls, which are only three feet high. When a big cat like the snow leopard enters the coral, it kills all the animals in panic. Out in the wild, the same leopard would have taken only one prey.
So Dr Nawaz decided to provide the villagers with financial support, in order to raise the coral’s walls. They have been covered with mesh to prevent the snow leopard from entering.
Meanwhile, the money from the Whitley Award (around 35,000 pounds) will be used to expand the conservation work to new valleys in the north. Three landscapes from Pakistan (Pamir-Karakoram, Hindu Kush in north east Chitral and Himalayan part of Neelum Valley, Astore and Deosai) have been selected to be part of a global plan called the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP).
An important component will be the formal management planning of snow leopard landscapes. Dr Nawaz is excited to be able to use the money to focus on big chunks of area instead of smaller areas like the Chitral Gol National Park. As he points out, one snow leopard needs at least 1,600 square km of territory, while Chitral Gol covers only 25 square km.
There is also good news for the snow leopard in captivity in Nathiagali — I was recently told that the KP government has finally taken notice of its sad existence and is going to approve a plan to shift it to a captivity centre inside the Chitral Gol National Park.
The only other snow leopard in captivity in Pakistan is in Sust valley in Upper Hunza at the moment (abandoned as a cub in the wild found by locals). It is also in dire straits, but it too will be shifted to a proper enclosure being built for it in Naltar after Eid.