Snow leopards poached for new skeleton trade
Gland, Switzerland: Up until now the snow leopard (Uncia uncia) has been hunted solely for its coat of white-grey fur patterned with dark-grey open rosettes. Their fur was the height of fashion during the 1920s when around 1,000 pelts were exported out of Asia and Russia each year.
Although banned, the trade in pelts continues in countries that have failed to economically flourish after the demise of the Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan, a snow leopard pelt can fetch a price 60 times higher than the minimum wage. And in the neighbouring Kyrgyz Republic the country may have lost as much as 50 per cent the number of cats in the wild within the past seven years.
Now a new threat looms, as tiger bone becomes scarcer, Asian medicine markets are turning to substitutes: such as the skeleton of the endangered snow leopard.
"The areas that we have the most concern about are the Central Asian Republics where the economies are such that people are doing anything that they can to get by," reports Tom McCarthy, Conservation Director of the International Snow Leopard Trust which works with the conservation organization WWF to try and save the remaining 7,000 snow leopards in the wild. "We know that snow leopard populations have just plummeted and the poaching is very high."
The economic needs of these countries combined with the search by Asian medicine markets for big cat bones creates the potential for new trade boom in skeletons. "As availability of tiger bone goes down then the demand for replacement bones will go up," reports McCarthy. "Snow leopards are one replacement that we know is being more keenly sought. We've just heard that one full snow leopard skeleton was sold for US$10,000."
Demand for snow leopard bones may fuel more poaching in the 12 countries where snow leopards are found: China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Russia and Mongolia.
"In a lot of these places people are not yet aware of what the value of the bones are. Five or six years ago in places like Mongolia the primary trade partner was the Soviet Union. But more trade is going on now with China and when it becomes more widely known in Mongolia what a set of snow leopard bones can sell for in China, we may see more poaching."
The snow leopard is one of the species listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which bans all international commercial trade. But Bhutan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic have not yet ratified the treaty providing even fewer obstacles for an increase in trade to East Asia.
Addressing the economic needs of local people in snow-leopard habitat is the key to limiting poaching, as the experience of Mongolia has shown. Here the snow leopard's prey - ibex (wild goats) - are often squeezed out of their habitat by domestic animal herds as Bazarsad Chimed-Ochir, Head of the WWF Mongolia Project Office explains: "Livestock in the last 10 years is rapidly increasing - before 1990 we had about 20-25 million heads, now we have 33 million livestock. There is massive competition between ibex and domestic animals - this is one major reason leading to the reduction of the prey species." As numbers of ibex decline the snow leopard increasingly must hunt domestic animals: the herder's bank account. But the price of this prey is high for the snow leopard as angry herders often kill them in retribution for their "stolen" animals.
"To reduce the conflict between snow leopard and herders we have initiated some incentive programmes for herders. We call one Irbis Enterprises - an economic incentive programme which sells their wool and hide products in return for an agreement not to poach either the prey species or the snow leopards," says Chimed-Ochir.
Fortunately in Mongolia local herders have a belief that killing a snow leopard brings bad luck and tend to do this only as a last resort. But opportunists seeking to make riches trading snow leopard skeletons on the black market have no such fears holding them back.
*Anouk Ride is Editorial Coordinator for the Living Planet magazine based in WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.