|Kyrgyzstan » Kyrgyzstan » Nature » Fauna » Snow Leopard|
Tigers 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.
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). They have a distinctive smokey-grey fur, tinged with yellow and with a pattern of dark grey or black rosettes, or spots. The fur is made up of long strands – the wolly fur on the belly can measure 12cm long. The combination of short forelegs and long hinig legs provide for agility in the steep and rugged habitat in which they are found, and the large paws help it to walk on snow. The long tail serves two purposes – helping balance, and and to wrap around the body and the face for additional warmth when resting. To help it breathe in the high altitudes which are its natural habitat, it has a large breast cavity and nostrils.
One of the things which set the snow leopard apart from the other big cats is that they are unable to roar.
The natural habitat of the snow leopard is in mountain areas – at 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.
Only 5% of its natural habitat in Kyrgyzstan is protected. They are normally found in the southern regions – in the mountains of Osh and Batken and along the border with China. Generally, they are to be found in more remote mountain regions, for example around Chatkal and Lake Sary Chelek – although these areas have always had a smaller poplation as the snowfall is greater and a lower availabilty of prey – but they have also been seen in Ala Archa (in the Kyrgyz Krebet not far from Bishkek), and the in Talas oblast. There is a, stuffed, specimen in the Ala Archa Museum.
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). Sometimes they might attack livestock – sheep, goats, horses, or even young yaks), if their natural prey is not available. They rarely, if ever, attack 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.
They tend to eat slowly and have been known to remain at the sight of a kill – to ptotect it from scavengers – for several days, until they have consumed it all.
The sytem of protected areas was strictly enforced in the Soviet period – but the collapse of the system and disappearance of the subsdies necessary to support it, has meant that poaching has been steadily increasing. For example: 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.
There are fixed penalties for poaching and/or trading in body parts – currently 60000 som or 5 years in prison.
Apart from being hunted – which probably represents the biggest threat to the species – they fall prey to a variety of disease, and malnutrition when prey is not available. There has been a reduction in the amount of prey available – as well as in the virgin territory which serves as their natural habitat, putting pressure on them. Also, sometimes the cub from a litter may be abandoned. In the wild, it is thought they can live for about 10 to 12 years.
Work is underway to maintain protected areas and 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.
Measures have also been undertaken to reduce the illegal trade in fur, bones and cubs. In three years, 154 poachers were caught and 12 of them weere sentenced to prison terms. As well as impounding skins and other animal parts – a large number of weapns and traps have also been confiscated.
As a result of these activities – several other rare animals have also received added protection.
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” – Барс) 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.
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