BOOKS: Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2013:
Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World Edited by Don Hunter Univ. Press of Colorado (5589 Arapahoe Ave., Suite 206-C, Boulder, CO 80303), 2012. 216 pages. Hardcover $26.95, e-book $21.95.
Don Hunter, who assembled Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World, acknowledges inspiration and help in arranging publication from wildlife ethologist Marc Bekoff, co-editor of the 2008 anthology Listening to Cougar. Like Listening to Cougar, Hunter’s anthology collects first-person recollections of encounters with a seldom-seen big cat–but, while thousands of people per year catch at least fleeting glimpses of a puma, mere dozens see snow leopards.
Ranging through parts of 12 nations, mostly in the Himalayas, snow leopards live at altitudes of 11,500 to 23,000 feet above sea level. Thus at snow leopards’ lowest descent, they are still at twice the elevation of Denver and about the same elevation as Cuzco.
Snow leopard habitat would not be easy to visit even if gaining access did not require crossing politically and militarily sensitive national boundaries. But snow leopards thrive in the no-man’s-land dividing India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and several central Central Asian nations, including Afghanistan, which are often fighting insurg-encies even if not officially at war.
To a certain extent, minefields and checkpoints protect snow leopards from habitat encroachment. Unlike pumas, snow leopards do not share their territories with ski resorts and four-lane all-weather highways. Yet, like pumas, snow leopards have historically been persecuted as a threat to livestock.
Further, the poverty and instability of range states such as Afghanistan and several nations fragmented from the Soviet Union tend to encourage poaching more than eco-tourism and conservation.
Hunter was able to find two superstar contributors, longtime Wildlife Conservation Society biologist George Schaller and multi-time best-selling author Peter Matthiessen, who wrote his 1973 book The Snow Leopard about an expedition undertaken with Schaller. Most of the rest of Hunter’s lineup are relatively obscure biologists and videographers. Among them are representatives of six of the 12 snow leopard range states, including Ali Abutalip Dahashof, whose Kazak herdsman father became legendary circa 1930 for killing two snow leopards with his bare hands in a single fight in defense of about 50 sheep, several camels, and some cattle.
“Ironically, those two snow leopards were the only wildlife my father killed in his entire life,” Dahashof wrote originally in Chinese, translated by Rich Harris.
Working with Harris on a 1999 study of argali wild sheep, Dahashof saw his first snow leopard when a herder brought them an emaciated kitten. “We released it at a site we knew would not have livestock for months and had abundant natural prey,” Dahashof recounted. “On this day Ali, son of Dahash, used his strength and wisdom to save the life of a snow leopard.”
Employed as a hunting guide in the Kharteng International Hunting Area, Dahashof later saw a snow leopard a second time, and has often seen snow leopard droppings, kills, and tracks. He is thereby among the most successful of snow leopard observers.
As in the U.S., wildlife conservation is funded in much of snow leopard range by fees collected from trophy hunters, especially hunters of the rare argali. “I’m not fully satisfied that there aren’t other, less invasive approaches to help snow leopards and local people co-exist,” writes Ashid Ahmad Khan, who set up the hunting-funded snow leopard conservation program in Pakistan. “I continue to explore new models in which the revenue from trophy hunting is replaced by eco-tourism, medicinal plant collection, or honey and fruit production. I look forward to the day when I can replace the slogan ‘money for conservation’ with ‘money without killing.’”
One could wish for similar ethical concern among some of the western contributors, Schaller included, who express no qualms in this anthology about such practices as staking out live goats as bait to lure snow leopards into view for photography and using leghold traps to catch snow leopards for radio-collaring, at risk of inflicting injuries that might disable the snow leopards, inhibiting their ability to feed themselves and their cubs. ––Merritt Clifton