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