23 October 2020

Snow Leopards in the Pamir Mountain range

One of the most important habitat areas for snow leopards in the world is the beautiful, wild and remote Pamir Mountain range that stretches across Tajikistan in Central Asia. UNEP’s Vanishing Treasures programme was able to do important fieldwork and research in these mountains over the summer, despite the current COVID restrictions, learning more about snow leopards and their prey.

Maarten Hofman, a wildlife biologist and Associate Programme Management Officer at UNEP’s Vienna office, is co-coordinating the Central Asian component of the Vanishing Treasures programme. He caught up with Munavvar Alidodov, the Director of the Association of Nature Conservation Organizations of Tajikistan (ANCOT), to discuss the exciting and eventful summer expedition that Alidodov’s team undertook.

How has the COVID situation affected your work so far?

Alidodov: It´s fair to say that the beginning of 2020 was tough for everyone, and Tajikistan was no exception. Movement restrictions within the country were imposed already in March and the first cases of COVID were confirmed in April.

We had to abandon our spring plans and move everything to the summer. Our initial plan to do two field trips spread throughout the year but instead we ended up with one long trip of 40 days in June and July. But at least we could continue with our work!

Munavvar Alidodov. © Sebastian Kennerknecht

What did you set out to do in the expedition, and where did you go?

It’s really important for us to know how the prey of snow leopard are doing, where they are and what sorts of population numbers are there. We do surveys every year across the country. The Pamir Mountains are the focus of our efforts in the Vanishing Treasures programme; they are home to the vast majority of the snow leopard population in Tajikistan.

The programme area includes a broad territory of Tajik National Park in the central Pamir and Zorkul Nature Reserve located at the frontier of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Our goal was to survey the snow leopard habitat and the distribution and number of its prey – which consists of Siberian ibex, Marco Polo sheep and long-tailed marmots – and to investigate the land use patterns of livestock herders. Surveying the marmots was a new experience for everyone on the team.

I´ve heard the Pamir Mountains being called “the roof of the world” – I imagine it can´t be easy to conduct surveys across this mountainous habitat. How did you do it and what sort of route did you take?

Conducting field surveys in such mountainous terrain is definitely challenging. The ruggedness of the mountains and lack of roads in the programme area made the surveys very physically demanding and we had to walk most of the time during the surveys. In the short video we made, you can see the type of terrain we have to deal with! Hopefully the images speak for themselves!

But to keep things as simple as possible, we divided the survey area into four areas, and spent 10 days in each. We used our 4X4 vehicle to travel from Dushanbe, the capital, to the survey areas and between the sites.

Who was on your team?

Our core team was led by our Head of Science Ismoil Kholmatov, myself and three other surveyors. Luckily, we also had trained rangers from ANCOT’s member conservancies within or close to each of the survey areas who assisted us in the surveys.

Where did you survey first?

Our first survey site was the Sarez Lake and the area around it. This area is a really interesting case study for the snow leopard and unique in the region. It is like a natural control study compared to everywhere around it because of the low levels of human activity here. To get there we had first to reach the village of Barchadiv in the Bartang valley, followed by a 24-kilometre hike to get to our base camp on the western side of the lake. We were accompanied by a couple of local rangers, employees of Tajik National Park and the head of the Sarez base of the Committee of Emergency Situations of Tajikistan, Kadamsho Maskaev. Without his help and knowledge of the area, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much in the area as we did.

4X4 vehicles are essential to get to and move around the survey locations. © ANCOT.

Sarez Lake and its surroundings look like a beautiful area.
Is it really as untouched and wild as it sounds?

Right from day one of the survey we saw big herds of Siberian ibex foraging on the slopes of the mountains. We also used a motor boat to transport ourselves from one location to the other and investigate each valley around the lake. At times we had to climb over the ridges and mountain passes to access the areas where ibex were and investigate the habitat up there. In summer they tend to move to higher elevations to avoid the heat, and the snow leopards follow.

We recorded all our sightings along with characteristics such as herd size, age groups, behavior and habitat vegetation patterns. We found very few livestock in the whole area and several places that appear to be used solely by wildlife, which fascinated us. These were also the areas with the most signs of snow leopard presence, as evidenced through scrapes, scraps and tracks. The animals’ behaviour in these areas was also different. They didn’t seem to be afraid a lot of our presence, which indicates that there is little or no pressure on these animals.

The survey team using a boat to explore side valleys of the Sarez Lake region. © ANCOT.
Field Surveys in action around Sarez Lake. © ANCOT

If my math is correct, you still had 30 days of expedition after that! Where did you go next?

After our stint around Sarez Lake, we hiked back to Barchadiv village and drove further to upper Bartang valley, to our next survey area. The communities that live in the upper Bartang valley are really remote. Pastoralism and small-scale farming are the main livelihoods here.

In contrast to the pristine Sarez Lake, we expected to see more interaction between wildlife and humans here. This is because there have been a number of schemes supporting families to get into the livestock herding business, supported by the Aga Khan Development Network.

Herders now occupy more mountain pastures than before. Apart from continuing the surveys of mountain ungulates and marmots, we also interviewed livestock herders about various aspects of their work, such as the number of livestock they keep, any diseases they encountered, predator attacks and places where their livestock graze. We recorded all this information along with GPS data on the locations of the corrals, wildlife and pastures.

Corrals like the one shown here behind in the background are designed to keep livestock safe at night. © ANCOT.

Were the mountains as pristine in upper Bartang, or did you see a difference in the number of wildlife or other conditions?

We faced the difficulty that our surveys in this area were hindered by weather conditions. This year’s summer was colder here than normal and a snowstorm actually prevented us from working one day. One of our group of surveyors got lost the night before while on a mountain pass due to the poor visibility. Thankfully, they found a way down and got to the camp safely.

Despite these difficulties we could see rapidly changing land use patterns in the mountain pastures and some unfortunate consequences. In one valley we found at least 15 Marco Polo sheep and ibex corpses who died from snow avalanches while trying to cross the mountain ridge. Our theory is that they died while trying to migrate and seek new pastureland, due to the increase of livestock in mountain pastures, which drove these ungulates out of their natural habitat, and the wild animals faced new risks in migrating.

What do you think would be the solution to this problem? Is there a way for wildlife and humans to co-exist?

The exciting thing about the Vanishing Treasures programme is that we plan to pilot some alternative livelihood options for communities in upper Bartang and the other areas. The goal is to reduce or diversify families’ dependence on pasturelands and other natural resources, which wildlife depend on also.

We don’t know yet exactly what these pilots will be, but that’s why we collected lots of socio-economic information during our surveys. This type of data will help us design appropriate options. We have experience from other areas of Tajikistan in developing community conservancies and this is definitely an option to explore.

Interviews with local families and herders © ANCOT.

Are community conservancies part of your survey area?

Yes, in fact our next survey area, the Alichur sub-district of the eastern Pamir, includes one the most successful community-based conservancies in Tajikistan – in Burgut, in the mountains and valleys north of Alichur village and near Yashilkul Lake.

This is one of the main reasons we decided to survey this area, because it allows us to measure how well wildlife is doing when proactive conservation measures are put in place. The local conservancy has already undertaken several experimental projects to increase the productivity of pastures for both livestock herders and wildlife. This year the conservancy decided to rent several pastures along the valleys for the coming years, effectively keeping livestock out.

This will allow us to monitor, without any human influence, the intensity of use of these pastures by the prey of snow leopards, as well as other natural processes including the effects of climate change. With the help of Burgut rangers we were able to complete our surveys in much shorter time here than in other areas. Their excellent knowledge of the area and its wildlife made a big difference in survey time, as did easier access routes in the area.

Zorkul Nature Reserve was your final survey area. If I´ve understood correctly, this is at a high altitude.
What did you find there?

After almost a month in the mountains already, we were all very well adapted to the high altitudes, which helped us tremendously as Zorkul Nature Reserve is at 4,100 meters above sea level. The reserve is a really important area for the Marco Polo sheep, which is the main prey species of the snow leopard in this part of the Pamirs.

We surveyed up to 500 sheep here. Interestingly, we also observed larger marmot families and denser populations. Snow leopards prey on them during the peak of summer temperatures because of their abundance and the difficulty of hunting larger prey at this time of the year. We know that almost all of the pastures adjacent to the reserve are occupied by large numbers of livestock who graze here in summer.

Marmots in the Pamirs. © ANCOT.
A herd of male Asiatic ibex. © Ancot.

What will you do with all this information collected during your expedition?

This baseline survey data is really important for our research and for our understanding of how climate change might impact the prey of the snow leopard in the future – and, in turn, how this will impact the snow leopard itself. We are working with international partners, in particular with scientists from Humboldt University in Berlin and from the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme secretariat. They will use our data and combine it with information from climate models to understand both the current and potential future habitat suitability for snow leopards and their prey. We expect the first results to be ready early next year, and they will be refined as we collect more data in the field.

More surveys are also planned for 2021 and will include camera traps and other additional activities to estimate the snow leopard abundance in the project area, as well as repeating the surveys we did this year.

This has been a really great conversation. Thank you. We are wishing you and your team the best of luck with the analysis of the collected data!