05 Jun 2020 Press release

First-ever monitoring of snow leopard population close to Kyrgyzstan’s capital

  • Findings suggest climate change may exacerbate threats to wildlife and livelihoods
  • World Environment Day 2020, celebrated on 5 June, focuses on the links between humans and nature
  • UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures programme aims to help people and nature co-exist

Geneva, 5 June 2020 – A new monitoring effort has so far identified a total of 15 adult snow leopards in the mountain range overlooking the Kyrgyz Republic’s capital, Bishkek, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced on World Environment Day.

World Environment Day, which in 2020 focuses on biodiversity, serves as a call to action to combat the accelerating species loss and degradation of the natural world. With our ever-increasing demands, humans have pushed nature beyond its limits.

Climate change is pushing the elusive cat – known as the ‘ghost of the mountains’ – towards increased conflict with local communities and their livestock.

Scientific studies suggest that the climate crisis will reduce snow leopard habitats globally by two thirds by 2070. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures are forcing farmers further uphill to find suitable pastures for their livestock to graze on. As a result, the two are likely to increasingly compete for the same land, with livestock attacks and retaliatory killings set to rise.    

In response, UNEP is leading a programme called Vanishing Treasures to help people in Kyrgyzstan to diversify their livelihoods through innovative approaches to ecotourism, beekeeping, and horticulture, for example, with a view to fostering a peaceful co-existence with wildlife.

“If snow leopards could roar, we would hear them cry out for our help,” said UNEP Europe Office Director Bruno Pozzi. “Climate change is hitting Central Asian mountains. Conflicts between snow leopards and local communities and livestock are likely to become more frequent. This may also result in a possible increase in poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Greater interaction between humans and wildlife may increase the chances of transfer of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.​ The Vanishing Treasures programme targets solutions that work for people and nature.”

In a recent survey conducted by The Snow Leopard Trust, at least 15 adult snow leopards were recorded by motion-triggered infrared cameras multiple times in the Kyrgyz Republic’s Ala Too range. Some cats were photographed as close as 40 kilometres to Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. At least two sets of cubs were also sighted, suggesting that there is a breeding snow leopard population close to the city. Both residents and wildlife in the region are highly dependent on healthy mountain ecosystems for their survival.

“People used to very rarely meet snow leopards,” said Sasykulov Azim Kurmankulovich, a farmer and ranger from Shamshy in the Chuy region in the AlaToo range. “Maybe they attack livestock because their prey base has decreased. If we protect wildlife in the mountains, snow leopards would not need to attack livestock,” he said.

“Over the last three to four years, we have had a lot of rain in spring,” noted Dzhaparov Emilbek Kuvatovich, a ranger in the nearby Shamshy-Tuyuk region of Kyrgyzstan. “This makes it harder to plough our fields, so we have to delay sending our livestock to the pasture. If we could bring our livestock down to pasture earlier, they would be less likely to meet snow leopards.”

“Kyrgyzstan was the first country to raise the issue of conservation of the snow leopard and its prey,” said Musaev Almaz Mustafaevich, Biodiversity Director at the country’s State Agency for Environmental Protection. “Further to the signing of the Bishkek Declaration, we are working with neighboring countries to study habitats and monitor the snow leopard,” he said, referring to a 2013 agreement signed by 12 countries aimed at securing the cat’s long-term survival.

The Vanishing Treasures programme aims to map livestock losses, retaliatory killings of snow leopards, pasture conditions and crop damage by wild herbivores. Such data will help to identify the location and drivers of conflict hotspots. There, for example, predator-proof corrals could be built to keep snow leopards and livestock safe, or livestock insurance schemes may be introduced.

Preliminary data collected shows that less than a quarter of the 160 households surveyed have alternative sources of income to farming which makes them particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Vanishing Treasures will therefore help to pilot ways of securing alternative incomes. Ecotourism may provide one such example in Kyrgyzstan. All 18 villages close to the Ala Too mountain range are well connected by road, but lack information centres or an internet connection. It will also investigate case studies on the potential transfer of diseases between wildlife, livestock and humans.

The programme, funded by the Government of Luxembourg, is carried out in collaboration with international and local partners in Kyrgyzstan, including the Snow Leopard Trust, the Ilbirs Foundation and the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program.

 

NOTE TO EDITORS:

Access digital assets, including a b-roll video file for broadcast, shot list, photos of the snow leopards and a map of the region covered by the programme.

Read more at Vanishing Treasures 

About World Environment Day

Celebrated every year on June 5, World Environment Day is the United Nations’ biggest annual event advocating for environmental action and raising worldwide awareness of the need to protect our planet. Since the first World Environment Day in 1974, the event has grown to become a global platform for public outreach on the environment in over 100 countries. 

About the UN Environment Programme

UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. UNEP works with governments, the private sector, civil society and with other UN entities and international organizations across the world.

To request interviews or for more information, please contact:

Alejandro Laguna, Information Officer, UNEP Europe Office: +41 229178537
Keishamaza Rukikaire, Head of News & Media, UNEP: +254 722677747