In a picturesque corner of Afghanistan, a unique conservation effort has helped bring the elusive snow leopard back from the brink and given hope to one of the poorest and most isolated communities on Earth. The leopards range across the snowy mountains of a dozen countries in Central and South Asia, but their numbers declined in recent decades as hunters sought their spotted pelts and farmers killed them to protect livestock. Now they appear to be thriving, thanks to a seven-year program and a newly declared national park, the AP reports. Scientists tracking the shy leopards estimate there are up to 140 cats in the Wakhan National Park, established two years ago across 4,200 square miles. Stephane Ostrowski, a specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, says that's a healthy and sustainable number, and indicates that other species like the Siberian ibex and golden marmot—the leopards' main prey—are also doing well.
The WCS believes global leopard numbers could be much higher than a previous upper estimate of 7,500, after data gathered by Ostrowski and others showed there could be more than 8,000 in just 44% of the animal's known range. The World Wildlife Fund lists the species as "endangered." The Wakhan corridor is high in the Hindu Kush mountain range and cut off by snow for most of the year. The population of around 17,000 lives off of subsistence farming. The leopards had long been seen as a menace, but conservation efforts are now catching on. The park has been attracting a small but steady stream of adventurous foreign tourists, and the WCS has been building enclosed corrals with mesh roofs to protect the sheep, goats, and cows that are the backbone of the local economy. (Read more snow leopards stories.)