Saving snow leopards

Using detector dogs to sniff out snow leopard trafficking in Tajikistan

By Tanya Rosen - Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan Snow Leopard Programme Director, Panthera

Snow leopards face serious threats to their survival

Snow leopards, the elusive wild cats roaming the mountains of 12 countries across Asia, are still facing serious threats to their survival despite significant conservation efforts to protect the estimated 4,500-10,000 cats remaining.

The situation in Tajikistan

Snow leopards and their prey are losing habitat to increasing numbers of livestock. In Tajikistan especially, snow leopards are frequent victims of retaliatory killing. 

Poor farmers look for opportunities to sell parts of any snow leopard killed to recoup the value of livestock lost, and so those parts enter the illegal wildlife market. 

The market is fed by demand in Asia: snow leopard pelts are put on display in homes as symbol of luxury and wealth, while bones are used in traditional Asian medicine sold over the counter even in Australia.

Trophy hunting in Tajikistan

There are some trophy hunters who seek the thrill of bypassing laws. They come to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan where some outfitters organise illegal hunts of snow leopards and their prey.

In 2017, Panthera, in cooperation with the Tajik authorities, helped save an female cat from an illegal trophy hunt.

Sniffing out snow leopards

Thanks to the funding support from the UK Government through the  Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, Panthera partnered with the Kyrgyz Customs Service and Working Dogs for Conservation to cross train four wildlife detection dogs to detect the scent of snow leopards, argali and ibex.

Why use dogs?

Humans have approximately 5 million scent receptors in their noses while dogs have upwards of 220 million. A dog’s nose is designed so that they can smell continuously. In Central Asia, detection dogs are the most effective way a customs officer can discover well-hidden contraband. 

And a detection dog cannot be bribed!

Stopping wildlife trafficking

The most important border crossing for illegal transport of snow leopard, argali and ibex, is the Bordobo/Kyzylart post between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. 

After a short few months, one of the dog/handler teams caught an illegal shipment of seven argali and four ibex trophies. These had been hunted without permits in Tajikistan and were being smuggled across the border to Kyrgyzstan and on to Europe. 

One of the detector dogs that is being trained to sniff out illegally-trafficked snow leopards

Saving snow leopards

Thanks to the informant network we built and the work to predator-proof corrals - both supported by the IWT Challenge Fund - we also helped save four snow leopards from sure death. All of them had attacked livestock and were captured by angry herders, waiting to be killed. 

Our team was immediately alerted and thanks to some negotiation and promises to build additional predator-proof corrals, all four snow leopards were released - three unharmed and one with a bruise on her head that luckily healed.

Thanks to the continued support of the UK Government through the IWT Challenge Fund, we look forward to supporting our informant networks, building predator-proof corrals and scaling up our detection dog work by training new dogs and stopping the illegal trade of endangered wildlife.