Our Snow Leopard Program Takes a Leap in Kyrgyzstan

By Fatima Mannapbekova
Sabin Snow Leopard Grant Program Recipient and Snow Leopard Program Partner

Snow leopard Kyrgyzstan

Join Panthera Snow Leopard Program partner and Sabin Snow Leopard Grant Program recipient Fatima Mannapbekova as she narrates her work for Panthera in the Alai Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Read about the work that she and other young Central Asian women are doing on the ground to help locals understand the importance of snow leopard conservation.

The slopes are steep, rocky and shrubby, with only a few trees growing within the microclimates created by the dips on the mountains. I can’t help but wonder, “Maybe a snow leopard is out here somewhere resting on a rock?” 

These are my thoughts as I travel through the snow-capped peaks of the Alai Mountains. We are part of Panthera’s CEPF (Critical Ecosystem Protection Partnership) and the Sabin Snow Leopard Grant Program's project in Osh, Kyrgyz Republic to get a baseline understanding of snow leopard occupancy and attitudes of locals towards wildlife conservation. 

Cows are taking a walk on the road; I like the speed at which they walk and how they bob their heads up and down as if they have headphones on. 

Today on the Alai highway, the climate is moist, cold and grey. Red and green pop from the mountains. Passing through has made me think about how locals live in this climate, alongside large carnivores. Most houses are heated with coal. Families have livestock, grow potatoes and produce dairy products, wool and shyrdaks (felt carpets). Alai people are commonly self-sufficient and carry invaluable intergenerational wisdom in their everyday tasks. Nearly every household has lifelong herders who exercise the ancient practice of reading mountain landscapes.

Remote Village
Remote village Kok-Art in the Kara-Khulja region of Osh Oblast, Kyrgyzstan.

 However, their livelihoods in the Alai Mountains have been changing rapidly since the beginning of the Soviet Union and continues to be impacted by industrialization. The introduction of plastic in the last 30 years since the independence of the Kyrgyz Republic has left it spoiling shores of stunning landscapes, flowing down rivers and covering pastures and farmlands. The increase in demand for livestock and the collapse of a centralized industry post-independence has left many pastures degraded with prospects for erosion. Biodiversity loss from unregulated hunting and climate change has put many species on the IUCN Red List. For example, we visited the region of Kara-Khulja, named after the Marco Polo sheep, a favorite food of the snow leopard. Unfortunately, the local population here has gone extinct.

Daroot Korgon has breathtaking landscapes, unfortunately without a good waste management system or awareness of it.

Large carnivore inhabitants make Alai a biodiversity hotspot, with snow leopards, Eurasian lynx, dholes, brown bears and wolves co-sharing these landscapes for generations. However, their livelihoods are threatened, as noted in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s alarming report and predictions for global biodiversity loss in the next 30 years. Therefore, snow leopard conservation needs to be considered with many complexities. Co-sensing these complexities to simultaneously maintain species richness and improve livelihoods in the next decade is crucial to ensuring abundance for future generations. Panthera’s work is an important step towards achieving this balance.  

Panthera has given us a unique opportunity to connect local people with the global interest to protect snow leopards. There are many things that can be done to improve and protect snow leopards from extinction.  

Much comes in the realm of land management. Non-humans operate within human-centered systems of land management. Increasing livestock to meet the demands of the growing population means that domestic animals are feeding at higher altitudes and competing for pasture with wild ungulates. Our seminars show that wolf and jackal attacks on sheep and goats have increased. Children are psychologically impacted by the presence of predators close to their homes. With fear, locals contact hunters to kill the animals, thinking they cannot co-exist.  

Everything is connected. 

But we are working hard in our unique role as young Central Asian, urban, multicultural and multilingual women.  Our privilege allows us to jump between Western and Eastern cosmologies and translate the discourse of ecological understandings amongst stakeholders. We weave networks and by doing so, remember that everything is indeed connected.  

Snow leopard

We run seminars, an educational exchange between rangers, local residents and our team. These seminars help us understand the priority of needs for locals and shape future projects. We are weaving networks.  

I personally am deeply involved because snow leopards are an umbrella and apex species, an indicator of biodiversity health in their landscape. Snow leopards are a symbol of Kyrgyzstan. And as our project showed, many people see snow leopards as heritage, as the inherent beauty of nature and as an important piece in keeping it in balance.  

I feel grateful to my co-coordinator Altynai, the Panthera team, the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation for their grant, the Ilbirs Foundation team, the CEPF (Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund) grant, rangers, survey team, seminar moderators, local Alai residents and everyone who helped make this experience possible. It opened my eyes to new ideas, helped me grow professionally and motivated me to continue working in wildlife conservation.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. 

Learn more about snow leopards.