The Shamshy Sanctuary in Kyrgyzstan's northern Tian Shan mountains is a haven for diverse wildlife. Ibex, mountain sheep, badgers and predators like lynx, wolves and foxes all roam these snowy stretches – and now we have photographic evidence of another, more elusive, resident. 
These are the first photos of snow leopards in Shamshy Sanctuary.

Earlier this year, the team from the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) spotted telltale tracks and scratches in Shamshy that told them snow leopards were about, and back in May, local rangers reported seeing one of the cats. Wanting to confirm the presence of these rare spotted predators, and to conduct a more complete survey of Shamshy's wildlife, rangers set up camera traps in the reserve's higher reaches, where the lofty ridgelines form ideal snow leopard habitat.

"We knew that this area had great potential as a snow leopard habitat," says Kuban Jumabai uulu, Director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan and SLT's country programme manager. "Now, these pictures prove the cat's presence in the sanctuary."

The camera traps certainly delivered. Snow leopards were photographed at five different locations in a total of ten encounters.


Once a 100-square-mile hunting concession where ibex and argali (mountain sheep) were hunted commercially, Shamshy was recently transformed into a wildlife sanctuary as part of a unique pilot project, and it's now a place for research and limited ecotourism. "The snow leopard photos are not only evidence of this cat's presence in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, they're also an encouraging sign for an innovative new conservation approach that is being tested in Shamshy: the co-management of a former hunting concession as a nature reserve by conservationists, the government and the local community," says the SLT in a press release.

With hunting now outlawed, conservationists hope the ibex population here could double or even triple in the next decade. And plenty of prey on offer would make Shamshy a contender for a key snow leopard stomping ground. The area is too small to support a big population of these cats on its own, but it could become an important part of their larger habitat in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too ("Snowy Mountains") range. 
With hunting now banned, conservationists hope the area's ibex population will thrive in the coming years.

"We're thrilled to see that the snow leopard is already there in Shamshy," says Musaev Almaz, director of the country's department of natural resources. "This cat is an important part of our national culture and heritage, and we're committed to securing its future." Listed as endangered by the IUCN, snow leopards (Panthera uncia) face a growing number of threats, and only a few thousand remain in the wild.

In Shamshy, the future of the cats and other wildlife hinges on close collaboration between conservationists and local communities, who must also eke out a living here. While hunting is no longer permitted, and rangers now patrol the area, local communities still have the right to graze their livestock here, as they have done for decades. "Local communities can be our best allies for conservation," Kuban says. "Our goal is for them to be proud of this reserve, and feel that it's theirs as much as ours." 

Top header image: Mark Dumont, Flickr