Monday, March 08, 2010

Hope despite death of a snow leopard in Afghanistan

Mar 05, 2010

Despite the death of a rare snow leopard this week in Afghanistan -- one of only as few as 50 to 200 still believed to live in the wild there -- the response by local Afghans to its capture gives conservationists working to protect the species hope.

The saga began in Feyzabad Province in Afghanistan, where a German civilian representative on the Provincial Reconstruction Team heard about a possible snow leopard for sale.

Snow leopards are extremely rare and by international convention, capturing killing or selling them is illegal.

It appears that someone in Pakistan contracted with an Afghan villager or villagers in the Wakhan corridor to buy a live, adult snow leopard for $50,000, says Richard Fite, a senior agricultural advisor with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture who is currently stationed in Mazar e Sharif, Afghanistan.

The animal was captured early Saturday night, Feb. 27

Fite heard the story fourth or fifth hand, so the details are a little unclear. But at some point, the Afghan villager or villagers contacted an official in the Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency, apparently hoping to obtain a higher price.

This is part of the good news. In a war-torn and poor part of the world, the officials at the ANEPA did exactly the right thing and contacted police, Fite said via email from Afghanistan.

The snow leopard was in bad shape when Fite was finally able to see it.

It "had been snared, had all four legs bound together, and was transported by truck for at least 2-3 days over a terrible road in cold damp weather, poked and prodded by many, held in captivity for a week."

That's about the worst possible thing that could happen to one of these cats, Fite says. "For a normally solitary, wild animal, the mental stress would have been just unimaginable. When I first saw the animal, on its fourth or fifth day of captivity, it was already in trouble -- quite passive and subdued. During the next two days, it became progressively more so."

Fite, who's in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. "civilian surge" to help built up agriculture there, launched into action to do what he could to help the animal. A group of international and local officials came together to provide aid.

A USAID officer, Casey Welch, who is permanently stationed at the Feyzabad PRT, "was resourceful in locating equipment and supplies such as heavy mittens, an improvised rabies pole, and an electric heater," Fite says.

The German military hospital provided medical supplies for the leopard's treatment, including the Lactated Ringers Solution that Fite administered.

After consulting with Afghan officials, a decision was made to attempt to treat the leopard by ANEPA Director General Mostapha Zaher, the grandson of the last Afghanistan monarch. And the local hotel, the Aria Guest House in Feyzabad, provided "a secluded and secure location for keeping the leopard. It also provided food, staff, and a small propane heater."

USAID even worked out how a helicopter could be borrowed to transport the leopard back to the Wakhan corridor once it was healthy.

Unfortunately, despite the ad hoc team's best efforts, they couldn't save the big cat.

"It seemed to respond to subcutaneous fluids given the afternoon of the second day, but died early the following morning," on Tues., March 2.

But despite the sad outcome, the overall story is positive because of the interest and support the local Afghans in the area showed for the leopard – an example of changing attitudes towards the animals across its range.

Tom McCarthy, director of the non-profit conservation group Panthera's Snow Leopard Program, was called in Seattle to consult on the animal's health. His group is working to protect the 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards believed to still live in the wild in the mountains of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The danger for these animals is that they tend to live in areas where people make their living by herding. "When the animals take their sheep or goats, the families have no recourse but to catch it. In this case, they caught it and then they didn't' know what to do with it," McCarthy said from Seattle.

Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust both work to create programs that allow snow leopards and humans to live together in harmony. In Mongolia herders make handicrafts that are sold in zoos in Europe and the United States. If at the end of the year the community hasn't killed any snow leopards, then the whole community gets a bonus," McCarthy says.

In Pakistan, where disease is a major threat to livestock, the groups offer livestock vaccination to villagers. "The loss to disease goes down so much that the community can afford to lose a few animals to the snow leopards," McCarthy says.

The shift in attitude towards these predators was apparent to Fite. "The local Afghans in the area were very concerned about the leopard and eager to help. It was particularly gratifying to observe that."

By Elizabeth Weise


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