But current estimates suggest that as few as 3,500 exist in the wild. Mongolia is home to the second largest population of snow leopards, second only to China, with roughly 1,000 cats living in the Altay mountains, which stretch from the northwest down into the south.
As much as 70% of the snow leopard range is used by herders for grazing livestock either seasonally or year round. Although protected under Mongolian law, impoverished herders kill snow leopards to protect their domestic animals.
In 1998, Agvaantseren Bayarjargal, director of the Snow Leopard Conservation Fund, helped to create a snow leopard conservation programme to ameliorate the conflict between herders and snow leopards. Today, the programme helps over 400 herders in 26 communities to make and sell traditional wool handicrafts in order to offset the economic losses they face from snow leopard predation. Communities are asked to sign ‘conservation contracts’ and agree to protect snow leopards and their wild prey from all sources of poaching from within their city or town. The groups receive a bonus at the end of the year if no poaching has occurred.
The programme has made good progress but some of the communities are not always able to protect the entire area designated to them and areas are being neglected. So with PTES support, Agvaantseren and her staff are working with herders throughout the snow leopard range in Mongolia to map out new, realistic and meaningful programme boundaries so that the herders themselves will define the regions they are responsible for overseeing. This remapping of the area will improve the impact of the conservation contracts, and also help conservationists, protected area staff, environmental inspectors, and other officials monitoring poaching to better understand the snow leopard range.
The considerable local awareness and support created will ensure a much safer future for these lovely creatures.