Conservation efforts have paid off.
The return of snow leopards to one of the poorest and most isolated regions of Afghanistan has been hailed as a victory for tourist professionals as well as conservationists.
The endangered big cat has long roamed the Hindu Kush mountains in Central Asia, in a region that straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan. With only 3,900-6,900 snow leopards worldwide, this population has declined steeply in the past few decades, the Associated Press reported.
Poachers have hunted them for their pelts, farmers have killed them in retaliation for the death of their animals and climate change has degraded their ecosystems. Nearly 20 percent of the entire snow leopard population disappeared in the period from 1992-2008, according to a World Wide Fund for Nature report published in 2008.
Conservationists have championed an ambitious program in the past seven years to combat the species’ extinction, including the creation of a 4,200-square-mile national park in Wakhan, Afghanistan, in 2014. With ecotourism trending worldwide, authorities in the region have expressed a desire to draw tourists to the remote park.
“When peace returns to Afghanistan—and it will, as no war lasts forever—Wakhan has great potential for ecotourism,” Mostapha Zaher, director general of the National Environment Protection Agency in Afghanistan, told AP.
Wakhan still remains relatively isolated, however, and much of the year it is unreachable because of snow. While a conflict with the Taliban continues 18 miles to the south, the mountainous region has remained relatively peaceful, as it is so remote.
The rebound of the snow leopard population worldwide can be credited to more than the creation of the national park: Conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera (which works in nearby Tajikstan), have added to the effort by helping farmers build corrals and fences to keep leopards from their livestock, as well as setting up compensation programs for locals when livestock are killed.
Conservation of snow leopards is one metric to measure a healthy ecosystem, according to Matthias Fiechter, communications manager for the Snow Leopard Trust.
“Every species has a value and deserves to be there,” he said. “They’re a symbol of a healthy ecosystem, and a healthy ecosystem is important to all of us.”