Care for Nature -
  The snow leopard - spirit of the mountains

October 2005 by Astrid Szelest

The snow leopard - spirit of the mountains


In July 2005 we were in Kyrgyzstan for the second time. Kyrgyzstan is a former soviet republic in Central Asia. A friend told us about this amazing part of the world, so we started to discover an unknown country in the year 2004. Our flight route was from Frankfurt via Moscow to Bischkek. Bischkek is the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. The flight time was about 8 hours and we had 3 hours stopover in Moscow.

In a base camp about 1000 m above sea-level we started our trip. The whole time we were guests of the nomads in the mountain camps up to over 3000 m above sea-level and we slept in jurts. Jurts are traditional woollen round tents. We took part in everyday family life. We helped the shepherds with their work, cooked together and ate together. The Kyrgyzstan people are a very merry nation. They love to sing, dance and play games, for example Aktschölmök. Aktschölmök is a traditional game of the shepherds which is played in bright or full moon nights. A man throws a big bone of a sheep into the night. Two teams try to find it as quickly as possible and hit a metal bucket with it. It is like rugby because the teams disturb each other. Mars, the manager of the camp, said at the end: “It doesn’t matter who was the fastest – friendship is the winner!”. It was ecologic tourism, because all the families did their usual work every day and there were only a few guests in every jurt camp. “Irbis” , that’s the name of the tour company, shares the money fair between the families, drivers etc. A part of the money is for the sponsoring of nature projects. For example the snow leopard project. 
The Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve in the north-east of the country covers 44,000 km², roughly the size of Switzerland, and incorporates an important snow leopard habitat in the Tien Shan mountain ranges.  
The German Society of Nature Conservation (NABU) is involved in the snow leopard project. We worked for this project on our tours. There are three confiscated snow leopards in a natural cage. It is the biggest snow leopard cage worldwide. Our job as eco-volunteers was to observe the behaviour of the animals and document it, clean the cage, help to feed them and take care of the plants around the camp. Poaching and trade are the most significant threats to the species in Central Asia. The three snow leopards are the ambassadors for their species.  
Back home, after our first trip, we presented our photographs in an exhibition in the town hall of Welzheim. At an information evening we showed slides together with our friend and collected money for the people and the project. This July we gave the collected money to the project manager. Now they are building a house for the security guards and eco-volunteers in the camp. 
Only a few hours of flying time away from home we saw an absolutely different world. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the world with an average salary of 15 € a month. The richness they have is an amazing, unique nature and the warmth of the people.