Pakistan’s snow leopards: threatened by an international hunting mafia

Snow leopard carcasses can be sold for $10K each. Poachers and conservationists are fighting over the endangered animal’s future.

A top predator nesting in the highest and most remote northern peaks, snow leopards are found in the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan territory in Pakistan. The current snow leopard population in the country is estimated to be around 400, according to a local non-profit, the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation & Development Organisation (BWCDO).

Snow leopards are contained in the colder areas of Hunza and Naltar valleys – habitats that favour the survival of big cats. Most roam in the wild, relying on mountain goats and sheep as their food sources. The rest are homed at the Naltar Wildlife Sanctuary, which provides nourishment and protection from illegal hunting.

Snow leopards are listed as ‘vulnerable’ globally. They’re on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list, and have been ‘critically endangered’ since 2013 in Pakistan.

The expansion of mountainous communities has forced the big cats to relocate to further remote areas in the mountains, away from human settlements. But it is poaching that’s contributing most to their decline. The practice is allegedly funded by an international hunting mafia, who illegally trade snow leopard skin across borders. 

The BWCDO has been actively involved in tracking down local hunters disguised as tourists and backed by the international mafia, who visit the high snow leopard sighting areas in Hunza and Naltar. 

Because snow leopards are a rare species, and very difficult to hunt, poachers can fetch around $10K per carcass. Hides are in turn used for home décor, and in fashion and traditional medicine. 

Local communities discourage snow leopard hunting, although many see the animals as a threat to their personal security. The decline in the availability of natural prey forces snow leopards to venture near human settlements to feed on livestock. They end up getting hunted down by citizens as a precautionary measure. In addition, regional governments are nowhere near sharp enough when it comes to big cat conservation.  

Law enforcement authorities have failed to educate and enforce laws for snow leopard protection, both in and outside of the protected areas. BWCDO has achieved some success in implementing a Livestock Insurance Programme to compensate local farmers for the losses caused by snow leopards. It has helped in limiting the precautionary hunting of the wild cats by the local villagers.

Surveillance cameras have also been installed to monitor the leopards’ movements, and implement prevention measures to restrict them from entering the human settlements.

Last year, footage of a female snow leopard with two cubs was released. Experts touted this as a sign of hope that the populations in Pakistan is gradually increasing.

In the upper Himalayan and Karakoram Mountain ranges in Pakistan, snow leopards play an essential role in maintaining biodiversity. As the top predator in the area, they prey on markhor and Himalayan ibex – thus restricting population size. This in turn prevents the wild mountain goats from overgrazing on local foliage. 

Lively snow leopard populations are key for these altitude ecosystems. Luckily, the continuous community-based conservation pushed by BWCDO is beginning to yield results. 

Rahma Khan is an independent journalist and travel writer from Pakistan. Visit her website