A healthy population of snow leopards, elusive big cats threatened across their homes in the mountain ranges of Central Asia, has been found in one of the few peaceful areas of Afghanistan, a wildlife group said.
Camera traps documented the secretive, usually solitary animals at 16 different locations across the Wakhan Corridor, a long panhandle in north eastern Afghanistan free from the insurgency that plagues most of the country, the World Conservation Society said in a statement.
Listed as globally threatened, only some 4,500 to 7,500 snow leopards exist, scattered across a dozen nations in the high mountain ranges of Central Asia.
The cats are poached for their pelts and killed by shepherds guarding their flocks upon which the leopards sometimes prey.
The sleek, fuzzy-tailed leopards are also captured for the pet trade, while an increasing demand for their penises and bones in China, where some believe they enhance sexual performance, has also led to their decimation.
"This is a wonderful discovery. It shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan. Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as part of Afghanistan's natural heritage," Peter Zahler, the World Conservation Society's deputy Asia director, said in the statement.
The New York-based group has been working in the Wakhan Corridor, which borders China, Pakistan and Tajikistan, since 2006 on protecting wildlife including the Marco Polo sheep and the ibex.
George Schaller, a wildlife biologist with the society, has proposed creating a reserve in the region.
The statement did not estimate the number of leopards in the corridor, but said they remained threatened.
The society, which works with the US government's aid arm, USAid, is providing conservation education in every Wakhan school, has trained 59 rangers to monitor wildlife, constructed predator-proof livestock corrals and started an insurance scheme to compensate shepherds for livestock taken by predators, according to the statement.