Paul Buzzard is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.
Ni hao! I am in Urumqi, China, working on our snow leopard conservation project. Our goal is to learn more about the current status of snow leopards in the Tien Shan Mountains. We are using trail cameras and interviewing herders to assess the snow leopard population and the population of their potential prey, including ibex, and to learn about human-leopard conflict. Conflict arises when leopards kill livestock, like sheep, which sometimes results in herders killing leopards.
The first two cameras we checked had pictures of snow leopards – including one with two leopards! The next seven cameras didn’t have any pictures of leopards, though most had pictures of other wildlife, including ibex, wolves and foxes. Because of heavy snowfall, we weren’t able to check all of the cameras, but we reset the ones we did and set up additional cameras in other promising areas. We also made plans to move two of the cameras that were unsuccessful in capturing leopard pictures several miles further into the mountains, which we will do on horseback.
In the west, near the Kazakhstan border, it was much, much more remote: I was the second foreigner and the first American to visit the county seat in more than 25 years. It was a four-hour drive to the protection station and then a seven-hour horseback ride to a Kazakh herder winter house. This cozy oasis, though simple, was a warm retreat after trail-riding up and down rocky and icy trails. Plus, the noodles and butter tea really hit the spot.
Unfortunately, the accommodations were not particularly restful with six to eight people sleeping side-by-side, some of whom were aggressive snorers. It was ultimately worth any discomfort because we retrieved cameras containing more snow leopard and ibex pictures and reset the cameras that were on high passes and overlooking some stunning valleys. We left 12 cameras with our Chinese colleagues to set in additional valleys.
The Tien Shan Mountains, from east to west, is clearly an important area for snow leopards. There is much interest from our Chinese colleagues in setting up protected areas, such as provincial or national reserves. To do this, more snow leopard pictures are needed to robustly document the importance of certain regions. It is also important to address the human-wildlife conflict in some areas.
For example, it was reported in one place that five snow leopards are killed per year for eating approximately 100 sheep per year (out of nearly 200,000 total sheep). Such claims need to be confirmed, but if anywhere near this much conflict is occurring, it needs to be reduced.
– Paul Buzzard