What's the News: Sometimes, finding out you don't know everything is a wonderful surprise. Videos captured by motion-sensitive cameras in remote Afghanistan show that there are more snow leopards out there than we thought. What's the Context:
There are about 4,500-7,500 endangered cats left in the wild, sprinkled across the mountainous countries of south Asia, but counting them is difficult. They are notoriously shy, and they live in areas that are hard for biologists to reach.
To get a sense of the snow leopard population in Wakhan, Wildlife Conservation Society biologists set up camera traps on the steppe. When a creature moves in front of the trap, it begins filming, allowing scientists to catch elusive species on candid camera.
What They Saw: They spotted leopards in 16 different locations, rubbing their cheeks on rocks and prowling across rockfalls with their thickly furred tails held aloft. The number of sightings is heartening, the researchers say, because it indicates a fairly substantial population. The Future Holds:
Just because Wakhan currently has a seemingly robust population of leopards doesn't mean that couldn't change fairly quickly. There are many challenges to conserving endangered species in rural or remote areas, especially in war-torn countries. Snow leopards have been killed by shepherds in retaliation for attacking flocks, and selling the animals' thick furs could be a very good living for impoverished villages.
The Wildlife Conservation Society's approach emphasizes that local people should have a stake in the leopard's survival because it is part of their nation's heritage, and thus are training locals to be rangers who will enforce the laws concerning poaching. They've also set up a livestock insurance program that compensates herders if any stock are killed by leopards, in hopes of avoiding retaliatory killings.
Even the best-planned endeavors of this sort often have mixed results, because of corruption among officials and competing demands for the loyalty of locals. But it will be interesting to see how the WCS's work in Wakhan proceeds and whether they can keep this population of leopards afloat.
Reference: Anthony Simms, Zalmai Moheb, Salahudin, Hussain Ali, Inayat Ali, Timothy Wood. Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 2011; 68 (3): 299 DOI: 10.1080/00207233.2011.577147Image credit: WCS