This is the moment that conservationists working in a remote part of Kyrgyzstan – a small country on China’s north-west border – realised they had struck wildlife gold.
A cat descending a grassy ridge in the former hunting concession of Shamshy triggers a remote camera that has been put there for just that eventuality.
Previously, staff had been disappointed when the cameras had recorded nothing more than the nocturnal meanderings of wild boar and lynx.
This snow leopard was what they had been waiting for.
Snow leopards prey mainly on ibex and argali in this area of Kyrgyzstan. © Snow Leopard Foundation
It proved that efforts to turn Shamshy – where people once hunted ibex – into a haven for snow leopards and other wildlife were making progress.
“Earlier this year, we found snow leopard tracks and scratch marks on several ridge lines in Shamshy,” said Kuban Jumabaiuulu, director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan and country programme manager for the Snow Leopard Trust. “Now, these pictures prove the cat’s presence in the sanctuary.”
Management of the sanctuary is part-funded by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF). “Kyrgyzstan is one of the most important snow leopard range countries, ranking fifth in the world for snow leopard population and fourth in terms of habitat,” said the foundation’s CEO Sally Case.
There are an estimated 200-400 snow leopards in the country, out of a global population reckoned to be somewhere between 4,000 and 6,500. China, Mongolia and – to a lesser extent – India are the countries with the largest populations.
But, the DSWF says, Kyrgyzstan may have an important strategic role to play in the conservation of this beautiful big cat, because of its position linking cats in countries such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan to the north with those in Tajikistan, India and Nepal to the south.
Now, those involved with Shamshy are trying to increase populations of ibex and mountain sheep called argali, because these are the main prey items for snow leopards in the area.
And they’ll hope to get even closer than they have up until now.
But perhaps not this close.
One of the world’s highest-living carnivores, snow leopards can survive at altitudes of up to 5,800m. © Snow Leopard Trust
Main image: Of the world’s big cats, only tigers are more threatened than snow leopards. @ Snow Leopard Foundation