For the Love of Leopards

Conservationists — and their cameras — fight for big cats in Central Asia’s Badhyz Reserve.

Last year Tanya Rosen, director of Central Asian programs at Conservation X Labs, shared incredible trail cam video of a Persian leopard mother — named Umeda (which means “hope” in Arabic) by researchers — and her three cubs. The young family proceeded to spend four days in front of the camera under a shady rock outcrop in Turkmenistan’s Badhyz State Nature Reserve, allowing the wildlife conservationists a chance to document something rarely observed in the wild: The most tender and intimate moments between a leopard and her cubs.

Umeda and another “super-mom” Persian leopard, Burla from Azerbaijan, illustrate the potential for this endangered subspecies to recover, as well as the challenges it faces in an increasingly fractured landscape. With an estimated wild population of just 750-1,044 big cats spread over nine countries, males and females find it more difficult each year to connect, mate and breed.

Tanya Rosen

Tanya Rosen, director of Central Asian programs at Conservation X Labs, works with her team to monitor and advocate for endangered Persian Leopards and other imperiled species in the region. Photo courtesy of Conservation X Labs.

Badhyz State Nature Reserve represents a critical area for the future of Persian leopards. The reserve and adjacent lands are on the “tentative list” to qualify as a World Heritage Site, which could bring more attention and resources toward protecting these endangered leopards and other extremely rare wildlife there, such as urial sheep and goitered gazelle. Currently much of the work to monitor and advocate for these imperiled species falls on international nonprofits.

Rosen says monitoring efforts by her team and others can provide justification for setting up new protected areas, something they’re currently working on in northwest Turkmenistan.

Their work also provides a lens into the challenges of protecting wildlife in a divided world, where work along international borders can lead to dangerous consequences for conservationists. Most notably, eight individuals working on big cat protection in the region, who Rosen worked with in the past, were jailed by Iran in 2018 and spent years incarcerated under absurd allegations of spying with their wildlife trail cameras. One of them, Kavous Seyed Emami, director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, tragically died in prison. The remaining environmental prisoners were eventually released and pardoned. The last round of pardons occurred this past April.

I recently caught up with Rosen to learn more about Persian leopards and the threats they face.

First, tell us more about monitoring Umeda and other Persian leopards.

This video is from one of the camera traps we set up in 2019 in Badhyz Reserve, a protected area on the border with Iran and Afghanistan. Her home range straddles Turkmenistan and Iran. We have observed this female since then and this is her third litter. In 2019 she had two cubs, the second time in 2021 she had two more, and now she has these three seen in the videos from September 2023. In January we re-recorded the three cubs on camera trap.

How did you get involved with work to protect Persian leopards?

For me it all started with snow leopards in 2008 in Pakistan and moving to Tajikistan in 2011. While working in Tajikistan I learned from colleagues that there was a small and very endangered population of Persian leopards in Turkmenistan and there was no specific initiative to protect them.

I first traveled to Turkmenistan in 2015. After a few years and visits, we were finally able to start supporting the leopard’s protected areas with monitoring efforts in 2018.

I now live in Turkmenistan, which is home to the second largest population of Persian leopards after Iran. There are approximately 60 to 80 leopards left there. In the past there were many more.

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What are the biggest threats facing these cats?

Human-wildlife conflict, habitat degradation, demand for leopard skins, and loss of prey — these are some of the key threats facing this subspecies. North of Badhyz, there is currently an investigation over two leopards, a male and a female, who were recently killed.

Border fences with Iran also make it very difficult for leopards to cross and certainly sever the ecological connectivity for the ungulate prey. It also deprives them of access to key water resources. There is a whole working group under the UN Convention on Migratory Species dedicated to this issue.

What’s your position on the question of World Heritage Site listing for Badhyz?

Badhyz is a spectacular place that deserves to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, once challenges the reserve faces, including those related to ecological connectivity, are addressed.

What’s next for your work with these endangered cats?

I just hope our conservation work continues to make a difference for the Persian leopards and the nature of Turkmenistan.

Check out the amazing footage of Umeda and her cubs below:

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