Snow leopards spotted near human habitats in Central Asia

By Antonio Broto

Geneva, Jun 7 (efe-epa).- Snow leopards, a threatened species, have been spotted near the Kyrgyz capital in Central Asia amid warnings from the United Nations this could lead to the transfer of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 and clashes with humans.

The European office of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) unveiled footage this week of snow leopards in the Kyrgyz mountains overlooking the capital Bishkek.

Some 15 adult snow leopards and two cubs were photographed and filmed using motion-triggered infrared cameras in Kyrgyzstan’s Ala-Too mountain range, some 40 kilometers from the city.

The proximity of the cats spells potential disaster and imminent clashes with humans, according to director of UNEP Europe Bruno Pozzi.

“Climate change is hitting the Central Asian mountains. Conflicts between snow leopards and local communities and livestock are likely to become more frequent. This may also result in a possible increase in poaching and illegal wildlife trade,” says Pozzi.

The cats are often victims of illegal fur and their bones are also used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Climate change is pushing the leopards further down the mountain range in Central Asia due to increased temperatures which in turn is forcing farmers to search for pastures at higher altitudes, meaning there will be competition for the land in the region.

“In the last three or four years we have had a lot of rain in the spring, which makes it harder to work the fields, so we have had to delay sending our cattle to the grasslands,” explains Emilbek Dzhaparov, one of the rangers from the region.

“If we could take our animals earlier, they would be less likely to encounter snow leopards,” he adds.

The leopards, which are also known as the ghost of the mountains, will no doubt come into direct conflict with local communities and livestock.

Azim Sasykulov, another ranger, says the cats “attack livestock because their hunting area has been reduced.”

UNEP highlighted the issue as part of World Environment Day on 5 June, which this year focused on biodiversity and the need to protect it.

The Covid-19 pandemic, a disease transmitted from wild animals to man (although the exact origin of the coronavirus is still being examined by scientists), has further reminded us of the need to respect wild fauna and flora.

Around 70 percent of the new diseases that have affected humans in recent decades, such as SARS, MERS and Covid-19, have originated in animals.

“Greater interaction between humans and wildlife may also also mean that the transfer of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 are more likely to happen than ever before,” Pozzi adds.

UNEP has set up the Vanishing Treasures program, led by Pozzi, to assist communities inhabiting the Central Asian mountains to find ways to diversify their economies and harness their surrounding environment to improve their livelihoods.

The program leads communities training in ecotourism, beekeeping and horticulture as alternatives to economic overdependence on livestock-rearing in an attempt to pave the way for peaceful coexistence with snow leopard habitats.

“The Vanishing Treasures program targets solutions for nature and for people,” Pozzi concludes.

Snow leopards can also be China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and Mongolia.

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