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Last Updated:  Friday, 28 February, 2003, 15:03 GMT
Snow leopards seized from circus
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Two snow leopards have been seized in a travelling Russian circus in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.

The animals were confiscated by members of the German Society for Nature Conservation and Kirghiz colleagues.

The German team says the leopards were to be taken over the border to Chimkent in Kazakhstan.

They are now in a rehabilitation centre, and will eventually be released into the wild.

Birga Dexel, who is coordinator of the society's snow leopard project, said: "This is the first real evidence that Russian travelling circuses are involved in the smuggling and trading of snow leopards.

"Since the animals are hardly ever used in circuses, this circus was most likely a means to smuggle the highly endangered species out of the country."

She told BBC News Online: "Our team, backed by the Kirghiz Government, has a web of informers across the country.

High-priced quarry

"We were tipped off the leopards were there, and we found them hidden behind lion and tiger cages.

Leopard cage  Throsten Harder
Scientific name: Uncia uncia
Can live 20 years or more
Listed as Endangered by the IUCN

"They were in incredibly good condition. Most of the animals we've confiscated have had teeth or parts of their paws missing, from their attempts to escape the leghold traps the poachers use."

The society says live snow leopards are sold for up to $22,000, and that there is a widespread trade in the animals, as well as skins, bones and meat.

It says there is growing evidence of a significant increase in the trade, second only to habitat loss in accelerating the species' rapid decline across central Asia.

The society has established a joint anti-poaching unit with the government of Kyrgyzstan, and is working with it on research and environmental education.

Demand for fur

Over the last four years, the unit has confiscated five live snow leopards and 16 skins.

One six month-old female it seized was flown to a German wildlife park, where the society says it has been adopted by a pair of resident snow leopards.

The unit has arrested more than 150 people, seized 400 weapons, and destroyed 650 traps.

Leopard skin in yurt   Alex Kirby
Leopard skins adorn many yurts
From six to eleven skins are needed for each fur coat. Snow leopard bones are increasingly used in traditional Chinese medicine in place of tiger bones.

Experts believe somewhere between 4,500 and 7,500 snow leopards survive in central Asia and the Himalayas.

Until a few years ago Kyrgyzstan was home to the second largest group, but the German naturalists say the number has fallen by 50-80% since the early 1990s, because of increased poaching.

Many yurts, the traditional round felt tents in which Kirghiz people still live, have a snow leopard skin on display.

But the occupants usually insist the skins are many decades old, handed down the generations as heirlooms without imperilling the surviving animals.

Images of seized snow leopards by Throsten Harder.

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