Snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan
Most of us, it’s fair to say, won’t ever see a snow leopard in our lifetimes. Sparse and elusive, they’re confined to one of the most remote and forbidding regions on Earth. Yet we’re comforted by the thought that somewhere out there, such a glorious creature has a secure place in this world. In this Anthropocene—the current time during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment—we know, their loss would be our failure.
It’s estimated that across their entire range, only between 4,000 and 7,000 snow leopards remain. Their best chance at survival, in part, rests with the humans living alongside them in Asia’s high mountains, where WWF helps train local communities to monitor and survey snow leopards and perform anti-poaching initiatives. While on assignment for WWF, I got to spend time in one such place: Ak-Shyrak, Kyrgyzstan, a remote village nestled at 10,500 feet beneath the mountainous Chinese border. In the community hall one afternoon, I watched local teenage girls, dressed in leopard-patterned fur suits, stage a theatrical skit and choreographed dance number that promoted the virtues of environmental stewardship. The enraptured audience, members of surrounding communities, included some former poachers who’d recently committed to wildlife protection.
This wasn’t fancy scientific monitoring or governmental-level activism, I remember thinking. This was super-grassroots education in the kind of place where changing the culture can really make a difference. Farida Balbakova, WWF’s project coordinator in Kyrgyzstan who’d organized this local Snow Leopard Festival, looked on, satisfied. “I feel like I awoke something that was sleeping inside of them,” she told me.