Snow leopards play key roles in their environments. As top predators, they are indicators of the health of their high-altitude habitats. This cat was photographed in captivity.

In a country that has seen war for more than 30 years, you’d expect to find very little megafauna left. That’s why the world was surprised when it was recently learned that in the high-elevation mountains of Afghanistan, there is a fairly large population of snow leopards managing to hang on.

Last year, in July 2011, local Afghan men who were being trained as rangers to help monitor and protect wildlife placed 16 camera traps throughout a region known as the Wakhan Corridor. Because of its isolation, this mountainous place has seen less conflict than other parts of the country. Here cameras, triggered by motion, captured shots of a surprisingly robust population of snow leopards—possibly as many as 100 animals. Previously, only 4,500 to 7,500 snow leopards were thought to exist.

Today, five major threats are taking their toll on snow leopards in the wild: 1) poaching for skins and for the traditional medicine trade; 2) loss of natural wild prey (wild sheep, goats, marmots and smaller prey); 3) retaliatory killing by shepherds when the big cats take livestock as the only available alternative food source; 4) disturbance of habitat as people increasingly move into snow leopard ranges; and 5) lack of awareness by local communities and governments of the rapid disappearance of snow leopards and the need for their protection.

Today, snow leopards face the threats of hunting for the illegal wildlife trade, diminished food supply, revenge killings by herders, habitat loss and human lack of knowledge about the big cats’ need for protection. ©Surya Ramachandran

Following the good news of the summer of 2011, this summer the Wildlife Conservation Society announced that it had, for the first time, fitted satellite collars on two of Afghanistan’s male snow leopards—located with the help of the previous year’s camera traps. DNA samples were taken from each of the cats, after which they were weighed, measured and fitted with the collars. Once released, the snow leopards headed up the Hindu Kush Mountains.

The hope is that the information gained from the tagged leopards will help us learn more about the range, behavior, movements and habitat used by snow leopards. In turn, the data can help the Afghan government and local communities design protected areas and management strategies for the conservation of this big cat.

Watch the short video below on the tagging effort. The entire process was documented for a TV special titled “Snow Leopards of Afghanistan” premiering in December on the Nat Geo Wild channel.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,