Land of the Snow Leopard Network – Kyrgyzstan Workshop

Jul 3, 2017 4:03 am

Workshop Panorama adjCreating Space for the Sacred Snow Leopard

Blog Article Written by Darla Hillard

The Conservancy extends grateful thanks to Almagul Osmanova and Kuluipa Akmatota for their excellent logistics planning for our recent Land of the Snow Leopard Network gathering in the spectacular Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Thirty participants convened, from the Altai and Buryat Republics of Russia, from Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and the US.

While we hope our Network will grow to include the Himalayan regions, for now the focus is Central Asia, where snow leopard habitat includes the Pamir, Tien Shan, Altai, and Sayan Mountains.  Many Indigenous communities who share these highlands uniquely honor Snow Leopard as a spiritual protector, and as a unifier of humanity.


Kyrgyzstan has been an independent republic since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At the center of its richly complex history is a thousand-year-old epic poem recounting the life story of Manas, a towering figure who fought to establish and defend a homeland for the Kyrgyz people and free them from oppression. The poem, said to be 30 times longer than the Odyssey, has been passed down orally through the centuries, through chanters known as Manaschis. Scholars call the poem as stirring as ”The Iliad,” as episodic as ”Don Quixote,” and as rich in moral guidance as the Gospels.


NicoManas adjustedDuring our workshop we had the treat of a morning spent at the historical park dedicated to this hero. A mural near the end-point of the museum displays shows the aftermath of Manas’s death in China and his widow, Kanikey, bringing their son back to safety in Kyrgyzstan. There’s a sword at the bottom of the painting that we were told has been passed down from one master-chanter to another. When I asked who has it now, our interpreter, Kyialbek, clarified, “the sword is the poem.”

Today some six million people live in Kyrgyzstan, which has about the same land area as Nebraska.

Our Journey to the Talas River Valley

From Bishkek we rode northwest for eight hours in two comfortable buses, over two high passes, to reach our workshop venue in the beautiful Talas Valley.

RoadToTalas adjusted

Between the two passes, we had a long break at the summer camp of a herder family.



They fed us an amazing lunch of traditional foods and showed us how kumis is made—the traditional drink of fermented mare’s milk that is a household stable in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. It tastes a little like sour yogurt.


This family is part of a pastoralist herders’ network that has been engaged by Rural Development Fund, one of the Collaborative Partners, (see below) to contribute to the documentation among herders of traditional knowledge about snow leopards.

The Land of the Snow Leopard Network – Reaching for the Stars

In our Network are keepers of the ancient wisdom, including Kyrgyz Elder and Sacred Site Guardian Zhaparkul Raimbekov, Buryat Buddhist leader Norbu Lama, Mongolian Shaman E. Buyanbadrakh, Altaian Shaman and Guardian of Sacred Irbis Tuu (Snow Leopard Mountain) Slava Cheltuev. For convenience, we refer to them as Indigenous Cultural Practitioners (ICPs). They communicate with the spirits, (or creator, or ancestors, or guardians—all these terms have been used in translations of our discussions). Buyanbadrakh, for example, received his Shamanic skills from seven of his ancestors. From these entities, the ICPs receive invisible information, visionary dreams, or support and guidance to help an individual or community.

You could say, then, that our Network is reaching for the stars, bringing together these ICPs, along with other wisdom-keepers: lifelong herders who know the ancient practices for reading and living in their environment; Indigenous educators, historians, and traditional hunters striving to maintain or revive their cultures; a handful of boots-on-the-ground natural scientists; and two progressive grant foundations—all in an effort centered on protecting snow leopards.

Our goals are the revitalization of cultures in our program area, and the integration of Indigenous Knowledge into mainstream planning for snow leopard conservation.

Our Workshop Venue – Talas, Kyrgyzstan

BaiBolOverlookDaniar and Gulmara operate the Bai Bol Ethno Complex, our home for the weeklong workshop, just outside the Talas town center. This couple, like some 70% of Kyrgyz people, are Muslim, and as it was the beginning of Ramadan, they were fasting from sunup to sundown. Ours was the first international workshop they had hosted, and they worked hard to make sure everything was satisfactory.

Peonies adj

Daniar plants peonies in honor of his mother; they are her favorite flower. As the week progressed and we got to know each other, I realized that they are particularly knowledgeable about the history of the Talas region; they keep a small museum, and they were very interested in our Network and its goals.  When I went to pay the bill, it reflected a substantial discount, which they wanted to give in celebration of the holy month.


LOSL Network App

For the past two years the LOSL Network has been developing a custom App for use by remote communities in monitoring wildlife and collecting data in a way that supports the needs of local communities as well as the goals of the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP).  Read more about the GSLEP here.

Last year’s testing of the App revealed the need for changes that would make it easier to use.  We also needed to discuss data security and other practical issues in maintaining the network and ensuring its sustainability.

The Collaborative Snow Leopard Conservation Program

LOSL is one of seven projects/partners working under a three-year grant with the working title of “Collaborative Snow Leopard Conservation Program.” Coming up with a name for the collaborative was another of our tasks. Once the other partners add their suggestions, a vote will determine the winner.  The name will also identify a website being developed to disseminate information and educate the public about our collaborative work.


A report on the LOSL workshop will be forthcoming, for those who love details! For me, one of the main take-aways from our discussions was the commonalities across our Network, and how the stories, legends, and traditions that will make up the LOSL “cultural database” can be used in several powerful ways, including the forthcoming website, to have a real impact on snow leopard conservation.

Everyone signed our list of Action Items

Everyone signed our list of Action Items

A Visit to Sacred Sites

When 30 people put their heads together in these deep discussions, it’s essential to take breaks, to get out in nature and remember why we are so determined to create these pathways for Western and Indigenous science to unite around the Snow Leopard.

Zhaparkul adjZhaparkul, who lives in Talas, was our guide on these outings. He is a guardian of the nearby sacred sites, and is deeply involved in their preservation and in educating people about them.

RinchinEvilEye2 adjBesides our visit to the Manas Historical Park, Zhaparkul took us to a sacred spring spring site—actually a series of springs—named after Manas’s wife Kanykei, and her daughter-in-law Ai’chürök.  Zhaparkul explained that the waters of the first spring can protect us from the Evil Eye, and that he would do a special blessing for each of us. The blessing is most effective if the subject doesn’t see the water coming, if they are startled.

Needless to say, there was a lot of laughter during these blessings!  It was a warm day, and it was so pleasant sitting on the grass, none of us wanted to leave.

Our next outing was a visit to the Sacred Site of Arashan, which lies at the entrance to Besh Tash National Park.  The springs here have also been known since ancient times. Arashan means Sacred Mineral Water. In the Buryat language, Arashan means Sacred Spring, and in Tajik, it means Sun Ray. Interestingly, if I understood correctly, the founding ancestor of the spring disappeared, in a ray of sunshine, after living many centuries.

We were greeted by a couple who came to be caretakers of Arashan after visiting the springs as pilgrims, and seeing that the place was being trashed by visitors, they saw the need for protection. They have several businesses and some land. Profits from those are invested in Arashan. There’s no fee, but they accept donations, which cover 15-20% of their costs. They hear from the spirits of the spring what they need to do whether it’s to move stones to a particular place or what to plant or other questions about the gardens; they consult the spirits.

People come to the springs from all over the world, as a last resort, but the healing is effective. They explained that these springs are different from other sacred sites; people get a vision from the spirits.  Artists and scientists get inspiration.


I got a sense of what they meant when we visited the first spring and following Zhaparkul’s prayer a feeling of calm washed over me.  The trip had been marked by difficulties over money; failed wire and Western Union transfers, ATM and credit cards that didn’t work in Bishkek, the bank’s rejection of any US bill that had a wrinkle or ink stain.  Since I was responsible for all payments, it had been extremely stressful.  But suddenly I knew it would all work out okay.

Zhaparkul'sBlessingAt the Spring of Love and Tenderness, Zhaparkul explained that he wanted to give Rodney and me a special blessing in honor of our many years of working with indigenous communities to save snow leopards. That experience in a beautiful shady forest with the clear pool of the spring and Zhaparkul’s powerful voice in counterpoint to the rippling of the nearby stream is one I will never forget.

The keepers of the site had invited some local volunteers to meet us, including a park ranger who had come to Arashan for a teacher training workshop and became involved in the volunteer movement to protect the springs.  He thinks the movement is gaining momentum. Our visit provides a platform for cooperation, not only to save snow leopard but also other wildlife.

Rodney asked about snow leopards and was told that a herder had seen one way up the canyon, behind the third bridge. Later, Rodney and Norbu hiked up the canyon from the springs and came upon a large boulder where a snow leopard had made a scrape to mark its presence.  We thought that was an excellent sign or blessing of our work.


From Arashan, we drove deeper into the park.  Akylbek wanted to show us the place where he set his camera traps.  Unfortunately, the bridge there had been washed away, and we couldn’t cross the river to get to the cameras.

BeshTash2 adj

Eagle Hunters & Dog Racing

We were late getting back to the Bai Bol where we ate a quick dinner and headed back out for a presentation by Salburun, the local Eagle Hunters’ Association.

CharleenEagle adj

What fun that was as everyone took turns holding such a magnificent creature—even though it was the birds’ time of molting and the hunters wouldn’t be able to demonstrate how they work with the horsemen and Taigans (traditional hunting dogs).

RJArcher adj

We also each got a turn at trying to hit the target with the traditional bow.  The women ruled!  We did note that the bows were made much thinner than the ancient ones we had seen in the Manas Museum.

GreyChamp adj

The hunters wanted to demonstrate the Taigan’s abilities, so they dragged a hide bundle behind a very fast horse and turned the half-dozen dogs loose to give chase.  By the time the horse reached the end of the field, the grey Taigan had overtaken the horse.


In fact, our hosts were the Taigan jarysh (dog racing) champions of the recent Second World Nomad Games (


In that official race, the course was 350 meters; 19 athletes competed, from Georgia, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. While the horse gets up to a speed of 60-65 km/hr., the fastest dog is the winner. In 2016, Kyrgyzstan won all the medals: gold, silver, and bronze.

Traditional Cultures, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program, & the Support of the President of Kyrgyzstan

The President of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, had opened the games with the comments, “In the modern world, people are forgetting their history, and there is a threat of extinction for traditional cultures. Nomadic civilization is an example of sustainable development, which is what all of humanity is looking for today.”

This is the same President who has led the GSLEP effort; he understands the work of our LOSL Network, especially in the context of the GLSEP mandate to “Enhance the role of local communities in snow leopard conservation efforts by adopting and implementing policies and laws that favor the involvement of such communities as stewards of biodiversity and champions of conservation.” (  His support has been invaluable.

Many thanks to Lyubov Ivaskina and Nicolas Villaume for sharing their great photos!

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The Snow Leopard Magazine

Jun 8, 2017 5:57 pm

Tashi Ghale

Tashi Ghale

We are pleased to share the third volume of The Snow Leopard Magazine, published in May 2017 by the Snow Leopard Conservancy’s Nepal partner, that focuses on Nepali efforts to conserve snow leopards. This edition contains many interesting articles; one written by Dr. Rodney Jackson, “Reflection on the First Radio-Tracking Study of the Snow Leopard,” and pertinent news articles including “Foxlights Distributed in Manang and Upper Mustang” and “GSLEP Meeting held in Kathmandu, Ministers Uphold Their Support for Snow Leopard Conservation.”

You can read it here - The Snow Leopard Magazine Volume 3 May 2017

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Through the Eyes of the Wildlife Photographer

May 27, 2017 7:18 am

Bjorn Persson snow leopard

The May 2017 Conservancy newsletter featured two wildlife photographers, Bjorn Persson and Oriol Alamany, and the world of the snow leopard as seen through their eyes. Read their amazing stories and share their personal experiences as they successfully search for and film the elusive snow leopard!

Bjorn Persson 
Bjorn Persson 2

Despite all the bad things going on in the world, there is pure, divine beauty to be found…”

Bjorn Persson is a photographer living in Tyreso, Sweden. For years, he has traveled “Africa in search of adventure and great images.” Persson says “the thrill of taking pictures isn’t about the actual photography. It’s about the preparations, the journeys, the long hours, and all the sweat and tears that ultimately go into a great image.” He goes on to say, “I always try to capture the unusual…a story no one has told before.”
His favorite place is Kenya and the vast fields of Masai Mara. He states, “this is the cradle of life, and that’s why we must do everything we can to save it.” Persson’s passion for wildlife started in 2002 while studying conservation and working with anti-poaching in South Africa. He says, “this was also when I realized what a critical state the African wildlife is in.” Since that time, his ambition has been “to spread awareness.” Persson concludes, “through my images, I want to pay tribute to these beautiful creatures in their magnificant surroundings. The African wildlife holds an immense beauty rooted deep in our souls, and by connecting to it, I think we can create the engagement needed to make a change.”

Recently, Persson traveled to a completely different, yet equally beautiful and delicate ecosystem, that of Ladakh, India, located in the Karakoram mountain range, one of the Greater Ranges of Asia, to photograph snow leopards in their natural habitat. And this is his story.

I was blessed to take these photos on a snow leopard expedition to the Hemis National Park in Ladakh, India.  I say blessed because if you’re extremely lucky, your only chance of seeing one is through a telescope one kilometer away. Snow leopards are one of the world’s most elusive animals, and the most common way to spot one is high up on the mountain ridges where they like to patrol. This is also what happened the day I first saw one.

After several days of patiently waiting (and freezing), we finally spotted a snow leopard passing by on a remote top. Just the sensation of actually having seen this mysterious ghost of the Himalayas was an unforgettable experience in itself. But I wanted more. Somehow I just felt that this was the day I had been waiting for my whole life. When it finally disappeared over the ridge, I asked the guide if it was a good idea to trek to the other side of the mountain. He said no. It was already getting dark, and most likely it would be gone by now. But the voice in my heart told me otherwise. I decided to get to the other side on my own. Deeply concerned, he explained that it was on my own risk, but before he’d even finished his sentence, I was gone. 

One hour later, and after a steep, strenuous climb up the mountain side, I lay down on the ridge to wait. Below me was a valley with some grazing blue sheep. I looked around through my binoculars but couldn’t see a thing. The sun was going down and my whole body was shivering from the icy winds sweeping through the gorge. Another 30 minutes went by, but nothing. I was just about to give up when I suddenly discovered that the blue sheep had frozen in their positions. Their ears pointed straight up and they were all looking in the same direction. My heart started pounding. I still couldn’t see anything, but now I knew it was there. Suddenly, a big dust cloud appeared before my eyes and out came the snow leopard. He was going after the sheep, and in blind panic they started running up the hill straight towards me. 

Bjorn Persson chase

Some of them passed so close they almost tread me down. The hunt was over in a few seconds, and when the leopard realized it wasn’t his lucky day, he stopped and started to make his way up a mountain in front of me.

At this point, the distance between me and him was less than a hundred meters. But despite my big, red down, he didn’t seem to notice me. Peacefully, he just walked up the side of the hill, sat down, and started overlooking his territory for other prey. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Bjorn Persson The Snow Leopard
But after a while, I put my camera aside and just observed him. The moment was too good to be experienced through my lens. It was just me, him, and the mountains. A lot of people talk about religious experiences. This was as close to one as I’d ever been. It was almost like he had come to me, not the other way around. And somehow it felt like he now rewarded my determination by leading me to him. 
Ultimately, he was only lit by the moon, but even though my legs were so frozen I could hardly feel them, I didn’t leave. Despite all the bad things going on in the world, there is pure, divine beauty to be found, and I was the lucky, fortunate witness. When he finally started making his way further up the mountain, tears started welling up. Call me a softy, but this was the best moment of my life.  Bjorn Persson - 

Bjorn Persson Ghost

Oriol Alamany
Oriol Alamany 2

“I was shivering, maybe by the intense cold, maybe by the excitement…”

Oriol Alamany is a photographer from Barcelona, Spain. An enthusiast of nature, photography, and film since childhood, he studied biology and graphic design. In the 80′s, Alamany shared the work as a naturalist, specializing in mountain fauna, with graphic design, cinema, and photography. He finally established himself as a professional photographer, having published in magazines such as National Geographic Spain, BBC Wildlife, Terre Sauvage, Geo, Lonely Planet, etc. He also has written and illustrated several books.
Mountains and felines are two of his favorite subjects. He tells the Conservancy, “I have done photographic works on the Pyrenees (particularly about its scarce brown bear population), the Alps, the mountains of Ethiopia, the Andes, the Rocky Mountains, the Atlas, and the Himalayas.” He goes on to say, “I was a member of the Managing Board of Aigüestortes i Sant Maurici National Park in the Pyrenees as a representative of conservationist NGOs.” He is a member of the European nature photographers collective Nature Photo Blog. And this is his story…
After three trips to the Himalayas, my wife, Eulàlia Vicens and I decided that the time had come to attempt a photographic work on the elusive snow leopard, our dream subject. We spent a lot of time studying the potential locations, and in February 2017, we traveled back to the Himalayas.
It is not easy to get around these mountain ranges in winter due to the cold (0 to -30ºC), the altitude (4000-5000 meters, 13000-16500 feet), and the poor conditions of the roads, accommodation, and food. But working together with local naturalists and trackers, we had the privilege of watching and photographing three different snow leopard specimens, sometimes for hours.

The second of our sightings was particularly outstanding. After several hours of walking and waiting around 4100 meters (13500 feet) on the snow at dusk, we were able to observe one snow leopard trying to kill a Siberian ibex, Capra sibirica. At first, the leopard was studying the ibex herd for a long time, taking advantage of the camouflage provided by a few brown earth patches in the totally snowy mountain slope.

Alamany snow leopard

After half an hour of patient stalking, he ran through the deep snow behind the ibex, who fled in terror until jumping over the vertiginous cliffs, with the leopard behind them.

Oriol Alamany leaping snow leopard

For an instant we thought that all had died falling into the void. But after some minutes, the leopard and the ibex reappeared safe and sound. The kill had failed.

Throughout the evening, the attacks were repeated twice more without success. I was shivering, maybe by the intense cold, maybe by the excitement. As a wildlife photographer it was a thrilling experience, and as a naturalist an interesting behavior observation.

For the next winter, we are planning to return to the Himalayas to finish our work especially on the snow leopard problems with local farmers and the conservation strategies. Oriol Alamany - 

cropped alamany 1

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Discovery of Three Snow Leopard Subspecies Creates New Conservation Opportunities

May 13, 2017 12:19 am

Bjorn Persson The Snow Leopard

In a major scientific discovery, a team of researchers has announced that there appear to be three subspecies of the snow leopard.  Until now, the elusive snow leopard, which inhabits a vast area of 1.6 million sq. km across multiple countries in Central and South Asia, was thought to be a single or “monotypic” species (Panthera uncia).   Despite the enormous size of its global range, hunting and poaching have taken a serious toll on the animal’s population, which today, is estimated to be only 3,500 to about 7000 wild cats.

The researchers, including co-investigators Dr. Rodney Jackson, Director-Founder of the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, California, Tshewang Wangchuk, Executive Director of the Bhutan Foundation, who also serves on the Snow Leopard Conservancy’s Board of Directors, and Dr. Jan E. Janecka, Duquesne University, in close partnership with 20 different institutions, obtained samples of the animal’s scat (i.e., droppings) from wildlife trails and other areas frequented by the big cats, and then, analyzed the DNA in the samples.  The DNA analysis revealed three distinct  “genetic clusters” that are geographically separated and warrant subspecies status – the Northern subspecies Panthera uncia irbis found in the Altai region, the Central subspecies Panthera uncia uncioides, found in the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau and the Western subspecies  Panthera uncia uncia found in the Tian Shan, Pamir and trans-Himalaya mountain ranges.

Each of the proposed subspecies spans international borders, with about 40 percent of the cat’s global range considered trans-boundary – thus underscoring the need for international cooperation. The snow leopard remained the last of the five big cats to be the subject of a comprehensive subspecies assessment, in part, because its habitat, including some of the highest and coldest mountain ranges in the world, is so inhospitable.

Based on their analysis of the animal’s DNA, the researchers believe that the snow leopard underwent a genetic bottleneck approximately 8,000 years ago during what is called the Holocene Thermal Optimum, a period of time characterized by warmer temperatures, precipitation, and a tree-line shift to higher elevations on the Tibetan Plateau. This suggests that snow leopards may be particularly sensitive to climate change, and according to Dr. Jackson, such changes are also expected to have a pervasive impact on the pastoralists who share the same habitat over this vast area.

Ultimately, delineating or separating Panthera uncia into subspecies provides scientists with a better understanding of the animal’s evolution and ecology. The discovery of the three new subspecies of snow leopards, however is not a mere academic exercise, but will have significant conservation implications.  As Dr. Jackson observes, “results from our genetics study help us better understand how snow leopard populations are connected and could benefit from strategically-targeted conservation actions to ensure continued genetic interchange.”

The 12 countries the comprise the snow leopard’s range – Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – have joined together to designate 20 protected landscapes by 2020 to each support at least 100 breeding snow leopards, as part of an international effort called the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (“GSLEP”).  The researchers hope that their work will not only encourage the GSLEP to designate the protected landscapes, as expeditiously as possible, but implement trans-boundary and more flexible conservation measures recognizing the genetic distinctness of the three newly discovered subspecies.

The scientific article Range-Wide Snow Leopard Phylogeography Supports Three Subspecies, documenting the researchers’ ground-breaking discoveries, appears online in the Journal of Heredity published by the Oxford University Press:

Dr. Jackson, Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, California was instrumental in making the genetics study possible by collaborating with the other researchers, including in-country biologists, building partnerships with local communities, NGOs, and government institutions with financial support from the National Geographic Society and others.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy, headquartered in Sonoma, California, implements numerous conservation programs that support snow leopards, local conservation stewardship, and sustainable development.

May 11, 2017

Please direct correspondence to:
Dr. Rodney Jackson, Director
Snow Leopard Conservancy
75 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-1700


Dr. Jan E. Janecka
Assistant Professor
Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences
236 Mellon Hall
Department of Biological Sciences
Duquesne University

To request a copy of the article, please contact
Daniel Luzer:


Photo courtesy of Bjorn Persson

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I, Snow Leopard

Jan 31, 2017 9:23 pm

Many thanks to Orion Magazine for permission to share a piece from their July-September issue, “I, Snow Leopard,” a poem by Jidi Majia (Translated from the Chinese By Frank Stewart) with an Introduction by Barry Lopez.

Jidi Majia is an indigenous poet of the Nuosu (Yi) people of southwestern China’s mountains. His poetry expresses the mythic world and cultural tradition of the Nuosu, while displaying a deep concern with the urgent problems of global strife.

“Speaking in the voice of the endangered Snow Leopard, Jidi Majia conjures a mysterious, magnificent creature with a message about the consequences of unchecked violence toward animals – and equally about the violence that threatens the heart of the human species. He evokes a dramatic presence of Snow Leopard – the smoke-gray fur chased with a pattern of dark rosettes “spun from limitless space;” the long, thick tail for balance as it bounds across a cliff face; …- an animal possessing both metaphorical weight and biological authority.” (From the review of the poem by Small Press Distribution).

Photographs courtesy of the Snow Leopard Conservancy accompany the Orion piece.

Read more>I, Snow LeopardA
I, Snow LeopardB

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