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Snow leopards – the ghosts of the mountains – majestic big cats, beautiful, rarely seen and extremely endangered. A big cat, which was and is hunted for its pristine fur, its body parts or even to be sold alive to private zoos. Before Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, approx. 1800 snow leopards roamed the wild mountains of the country. Since then hundreds of animals have been poached and the population size has plummeted. Merely an estimated 300 individuals remain, hidden in far away valleys and remote mountain areas. But not only the snow leopards are illegally hunted, their prey, ibex and argali sheep, are popular among trophy hunting tourists. With a license, shooting an argali sheep can cost up to 20’000 US dollars. Corrupt officials and short-sighted hunting guides all want part of the money, so each year far more herbivores are killed than officially allowed.
After cycling through the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan, over remote mountain passes and into hidden valleys, we were disappointed to not have spotted a single large mammal. In Bishkek, the capital, I seeked out experts who work in conservation and who could answer my questions. The German Society for Nature Conservation (NABU) has been active in Kyrgyzstan since the 90’s and focuses on large mammal conservation and monitoring, law enforcement and education. They have established their own anti-poaching unit, the Gruppa Bars (unit snow leopard), created an animal rescue and rehabilitation center and were the initiators of two snow leopard forums, the first conference that focused on snow leopards and brought all 12 snow leopard nations to the same table. I was greeted by Tolkunbek Asykulov, the director of NABU Kyrgyzstan and what luck, was able to meet and talk to the Rangers from the Gruppa Bars!
“It was late December, the temperatures had dropped below zero and the mountains were becoming harder to access. We were on patrol with government rangers around Son Kol, a popular alpine lake in the middle of the country. Our goal was to find poachers and arrest them with the help of the government rangers.” recounts Schailoobek Tezektschiev, a member of the Gruppa Bars. The NABU ranger team consists of four rangers and has been active since the 1990’s. They are present in the whole country and regularly patrol with government rangers. This strengthens cooperation and facilitates arrests. It is also a good way of exchanging know-how and knowledge.
“In December it’s already so cold that the lake freezes and we were driving across the ice with our 4WD. The second vehicle had sped up and was in front of us, when the ice broke beneath us. The vehicle slowly sank into the freezing water. Luckely it wasn’t very deep and we safely got out of the car.” Kyrgyzstan still has many very remote areas, where it is normal to not have any telephone reception. During the summer, herders live in these mountains and their sheep, horses and cows graze on the alpine pastures. But during the winter months the people and their livestock return to the villages in lower elevations. The rangers need to be well equiped to deal with any kind of situation they might encounter and fortunately the NABU rangers are. They carry a GPS, have good clothing and camping equipment and also carry a rifle for self defense.
“To our distress, the second vehicle was out of sight. Without help it would be impossible to pull the vehicle out of the lake.” As in this critical situation, the Gruppa Bars rely on local people for help. They regularly receive information from local communities about the whereabouts of poachers and traps. Nowadays poachers are well organized villagers and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to catch them. But the NABU is continuously active in community education and outreach, building important relationships with the communities. Furthermore, the snow leopard forums have significantly contributed to raising awareness about the alarming situation of these large cats. More people become aware and understand the work done by the rangers. An even more important outcome of the forum is a declaration by all 12 snow leopard countries to save the big cats following a strategic plan.
“We were contemplating what to do when a vehicle approached, but it wasn’t the second ranger vehicle. A group of men, illegally fishing, had seen what happened and came to help. These were the poachers we had come here for in the first place!” The Gruppa Bars go on patrol two to three times a month, for up to ten days at a time. A special ten year contract with the environmental government agency enables the four to be active within the whole country. In the 23 Kyrgyz national parks and nature reserves, goverment rangers are employed but unfortunately their numbers are low and declining.
“Successfully we combined our efforts and pulled the 4WD out of the lake. This day the poachers where in luck, as we let them go with a thank you and a warning. But not all poachers are so friendly. More than once we have been involved in vehicle pursuites or chases on horse back.” In order to successfully corner and safely arrest poachers it is important to have proper training. All four Gruppa Bars rangers have studied law at university and afterwards worked as police officers or at customs. They received training in biology, ecology and monitoring methods from the other NABU employees. In the last years they have been setting camera traps and supporting the monitoring programs. And sometimes the camera traps not only capture wild animals. Last year a poacher was caught on camera. With the photo evidence it was possible to find the poacher and fine him.
At the end of the interview I ask Schailoobek if he has children. As is normal in Kyrgyzstan, he has four children, three daughters and a son. “Would you want your children to become rangers as well?” I ask. He breathes in and replies: “I like my job and love being in nature, but I want my son to become a doctor!”.
We sincerely thank NABU Kyrgyzstan for their support, especially Tolkunbek Asykulov, director, Schailoobek Tezektschiev, Gruppa Bars ranger, and Nurzat Iskakova, environmental education.
Офис: +996 312 482 220
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