Discovery Kyrgyzstan
Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008

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Snow Leopard

Snow LeopardTigers and cheetahs once roamed through the forests of Kyrgyzstan but the Snow Leopard is the only example of the “Big Cats” still to be found in Kyrgyzstan.

This elusive member of the leopard family has fur with a cream or grey coloured background, and large brown spots on the neck and lower limbs, and “rosettes” on the rest of the body.

They are extremely athletic capable of making huge leaps over ravines and can bring down prey almost three times their own size.

They can live up to 21 years old in the wild and fully grown can measure 100-130 cm long, (and the tail can be 80-100 cm as well). At the shoulders their height can be 60 cm. The males are heavier than the females (45-55 kg as opposed to 35-40 kg).

Snow LeopardThey are known to both stalk their prey and also to ambush it. Usually the main part of their diet comprises of wild sheep and goats but they also feed on other animals, (such as marmots, deer, hare or birds).

They are found all over Central Asia from Afghanistan (where they have recently been enduring an increase in hunting/poaching) and Tibet to Lake Baikal. The whole of the former USSR was thought to have 1000 specimens out of a total world population of 7000. Although it is not known how many there are remaining in Kyrgyzstan, it is thought to be the home to the second largest population in the world.

Snow LeopardThey live in mountain areas in altitudes of 2000 6000 meters. They are equally at home in steppes, coniferous forest, high mountain meadows and even rocky crags. They tend to descend in winter to lower altitudes following their migrating prey. They tend to cover a large amount of territory perhaps due to the lack of abundant prey.

They rarely, if ever, attach a man which may seem surprising as they are so well adapted to their environment and man so poorly, that he is at a distinct disadvantage and would make easy prey.

Only 5% of its natural habitat in Kyrgyzstan is protected.

They tend to be active around dawn or dusk and tend to be solitary animals although a couple may hunt together during the breeding season (between December and March).

Snow LeopardA litter can be a single cub or as many as five. Usually cubs stay with the mother for their first year and only really reach adulthood at about three or four years old. Sometimes a pair in captivity have been known to give birth but it is very unusual.

They have been seen in Ala Archa in the Kyrgyz Hrebet not far from Bishkek, but are generally to be found in more remote mountain regions, for example around Lake Sary Chelek. There is a, stuffed, specimen in the Ala Archa Museum.

In nature the only real enemy of the snow leopard is the wolf but its most dangerous and ruthless enemy is in fact, man. Hunting or trafficking in live animals is illegal (although a limited number of licenses for hunting are granted every year and are very expensive). The Soviet Union originally banned hunting the snow leopard in 1959, but every year some 50 specimens are caught for zoos and other purposes. It is claimed that about half of the animals currently found in zoos throughout the world are descended from animals exported from Kyrgyzstan. In 2003, a Circus troupe from Moscow was caught trying to smuggle two young specimens out of the country, to sell in Russia. The vehicles were impounded and the case is yet to come to court. On the other hand a local newspaper reports that a hunter who killed 53 of the animals was awarded a government prize.

Apart from being prized as a living specimen, they are hunted for their fur and their body parts (organs and bones) are used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine as a substitute for tiger bones. It takes about six to eleven skins to make a fur coat.

Snow LeopardWhere some Kyrgyz family have a snow leopard skin adorning their yurt, (which is not very often), they usually claim that it is a family heirloom, passed down over the generations.

In 1999 the Kyrgyz-German Snow Leopard Project was started on the initiative of the German geologist Torsten Harder who persuaded friends and the authorities to support him in creating a small, mobile unit to monitor the animals lifestyles, their habitat and migration patterns and have confiscated weapons, traps and hides. As a result of their work a number of poachers have been caught, prosecuted and convicted. They have rescued a number of animals from poachers one is now in the zoo at Zurich, but the others have been placed in a special enclosure and it is planned to return them to the wild.

One of the things which set the snow leopard apart from the other big cats is that they are unable to roar.

The snow leopard is the symbol of Bishkek, the capital city.

The title “Snow Leopard” is awarded to the most outstanding climbers and mountaineers in the country who have climbed all the 7000m peaks of the Tian Shan and the Parmirs.

The closest that most tourists are likely to come to a Snow leopard, (known locally as “Bars”) is in the statues that line the road from Bishkek to Issyk Kul, through Boom Gorge, or on the Bishkek city flag, or on the label of a bottle of beer named after this magnificent animal.

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #6

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