“As we were heading out of the capital of Dushanbe, a lot of people told us, ‘There’s no way
you’re going to find snow leopards there,’” Meyer says. “But there were also local people in the foothills who said, ‘Oh, yes, they’re here.’
“We wanted to confirm or deny that as best we could,” she said. “And we were able to verify that yes, this rare species is indeed living in this range.”
The research was done in collaboration with Panthera
, a U.S.-based NGO that promotes conservation of the world’s vulnerable big cat populations, and the Institute of Zoology and Parasitology
of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan.
nly 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards are believed to exist in the wild across the planet. From the Himalayan mountains in China and Nepal, to eastern Tajikistan, populations of the cat are declining, largely as a result of poaching, livestock grazing, and the loss of wild prey. In Tajikistan, there is a small but robust population of about 400 snow leopards, although most are found in the eastern part of the country, in the Pamir Mountains.
Though the Hissar Mountains may soon be considered critical mountain habitat for the snow leopard, the region has seen a surge in human activity including increased livestock grazing, illegal hunting, deforestation and the seasonal harvest of wild plants and medicinal herbs. Of particular concern is incidences of herders killing snow leopards in retaliation for the loss of their livestock.
To confirm whether any of these elusive cats remain in the region, Meyer and a small team of research assistants hiked dozens of miles across rugged terrain, deploying 40 camera traps and collecting scat samples.
Their cameras were programmed to snap five photos every time something moved in front of it — be it a snow leopard, a marmot, or just plants tossed by the wind. Over six weeks, the cameras snapped more than 32,000 photos; of those, 27 offered glimpses of what turned out to be three individual snow leopards.