With their powerful muscles and long, sharp teeth, big cats often seem terrible and even invincible. This strength is deceptive, however, as these animals depend on populations of other animals – often large ungulates – for food. When anthropogenic pressures such as herding drive down populations of wild ungulates, predators must prey on other animals, and domesticated animals become easy targets. Naturally, conflict arises between the interests of protecting the predators and preserving the local economy, especially in rural regions where herding is the only means of sustenance. A successful conservation strategy must find a way to mitigate this conflict and interest the local population in conserving the predators.
As recently as the last century, one of such predators, the Central Asian leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica), was found throughout all of the mountains of Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan, and southwestern Tajikistan, as well as Iran, Turkey and parts of the Caucasus. Although the former range of the leopard in these regions stretched for several million hectares, today such habitats are confined to less than 600,000-800,000 hectares. In some areas it is already extinct, in others the number of animals is very low. And even in areas, which they still inhabit – Kopetdagh mountains of Turkmenistan – there a serious problem of the lack of natural food wild ungulate species, which, in turn forces him to turn to domestic livestock – and causes conflicts with local people.
Until the 1940s-1950s when it began a sharp decline, the leopard population in the Western Kopetdagh Mountains existed at a relatively stable level. At the beginning of 1990-th, however, the population declined as its basic sources of prey – urials, wild goats, and wild boars – were also declining. There was a real threat, that the leopard population could become fragmented and ultimately go extinct, as happened with the Caspian tiger.
The leopard demonstrates a more flexible behavior in response to human activities. Within a relatively brief period of time it has adapted to life with human beings, which meant changing and expanding its food sources -prey that once was secondary or accidental has become a new basis of the animals’ diet. When leopards felt lack of wild goat and the urial - the wild boar, then the porcupine began to play an important role in the leopard’s diet. Indeed, the cat’s ability to survive as a population in less than optimal conditions is one of its defining traits.
But in the case of the leopard, the problem is not just diminishing habitat and food sources, but poaching, especially in retribution for killing livestock. Planning a strategy for protecting animals like the leopard must therefore take into account the lives of people whom the animals encounter. The law on endangered species of Turkmenistan clearly states that punishment for killing protected species must be accompanied by an incentive to protect them. Simply declaring the animal a protected species can actually have an opposite and undesired effect. Moreover, in densely populated regions where leopards regularly attack the very livestock people depend on for their livelihood, legal restrictions are ineffective due to the stronger influence of economic factors.
Taking these factors into account, an experiment organized with funding from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has developed a new approach to coexistence between the leopard and local people. The project started in 1999- 2000. The most important aspect of our work was the attitude of local residents, who actively participated in planning a strategy for leopard conservation. Convinced of the importance of changing the status quo, they showed great energy and effectiveness in uniting the team.
We set out to do our work in a rural region of the Sumbar River Basin. It was a challenging location, a place where people truly live side by side with leopards. After a series of impassioned discussions and debates we agreed upon a strategy. Our plan involved compensating local ranchers with live animals, in essence materially replacing any animal killed by a leopard.
Using the money WWF provided, we bought the first 200 sheep. The wisdom of the strategy lay not only in involving local people directly in its planning and realization, but also in the far-sighted use of financial resources. Regardless of the initial generosity of a donor, sooner or later the money will dry up. Ideally a change in the local economy and in people’s attitudes would make the need for continued funding unnecessary. But such sea changes could not be relied on in the brief two to three years our grant was to last. Thus we needed to find a sustainable way to manage the funding. Under proper management, a flock of sheep is capable of reproducing and growing in size virtually on its own. A flock of 500-600 sheep would grow on its own and cover the cost of paying shepherds and veterinarians. Expanding the flock also provides the opportunity to offer the same service to neighboring regions that have similar conflicts between people and nature.
Our next step was to involve the local community in a broader sense. More then forty the most respected and influential ranchers in the region were invited to take part in a seminar, where we explained our idea and asked for help in implementing it. In response, several ranchers voiced their desire to insure their herds against leopard attacks, and a council was elected to manage the newly formed flock for one year. We also decided that eventually the flock – and the responsibilities that accompanied it – would come under responsibility of a soon-to-be-formed Kara-Kala Ranchers’ Society under a supervision and with an expertise of Sunt-Khasardag zapovednik. It was really very impressive, when after a 4 hours seminar – detailed explanations first, and discussions after – one of the respectable patriarchs took a floor. He said: « Far away, in the outside world people are anxious about the treasures of our Turkmenian nature. Their investment is money – and not just some companies money, but personal money of common people, who really think about nature. Our investment should be destiny – we need to prove, that we don’t pretend to make any fortune out of that money, but just to avoid detriment to our families, to our children».
The council chose two experts to investigate cases of supposed leopard attacks (These experts were trained by our specialists, and could definitely distinguish leopard's prey from any other reasons of mortality). Ranchers who lost livestock were given a set period of time to register the attack with one of the experts, who would determine not only whether or not it was indeed a leopard who had killed the animal, but also whether the rancher’s herd was being properly managed at the time. For example, if the herd had been left unattended for a long period of time, or if it was grazing in a zapovednik, the rancher might not receive compensation. On the basis of the expert’s recommendations, the council of elders would decide how many, if any sheep would be given to the rancher.
Some years passed since the beginning of the project. We have received more then 60 applications – at least 2/3 of them were approved and compensated – more then 200 sheep were passed from our flock to the owners. And our first flock is about 600 sheep already, all infrastructure for it is built and maintained – Sunt-khasardag zapovednik and the council of elders are now responsible for it, and we don’t need to add money for that anymore. We started «replication» - similar process in the Central Kopetdagh – again infrastructure, equipment, etc.
There are 200 sheep in the second flock already, experts are working – as well as two new councils of elders. And in the meanwhile, thanks to the wise policy of the President of Turkmenistan, people of Turkmenistan live better and better – and – between the rest there is no real need in heavy pressure on the nature.
So populations of wild ungulate species - natural leopard’s prey - start to recover. In addition, some special measures are undertaken – such as goitred gazelle restoration in its previous habitats (a special part of our review is devoted to this…).
So, there is less and less need for these cautious cats to approach people and domestic flocks. On the other hand, thanks to different forms of human dimension work – TV, radio, publications, ecological education programs for children more and more people understand, that nature of Turkmenistan and its unique species are their national treasure and heritage. It is our hope that with time, a long-term strategy that incorporates both education and economic incentives for leopard protection will support the long-term survival of the species.