By Alex Kirby
BBC News website environment correspondent, in Tashkent
Central Asia's tiny surviving group of snow leopards may soon lose a lifeline that is helping them cling to survival.
The project is having some success
A project run jointly by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and funded by the Global Environment Facility, is scheduled to end in the middle of 2006.
It is successfully enlisting the help of local villagers in protecting the animals, but needs political support.
If the project is not renewed, there are fears the leopards will not be able to withstand the poachers much longer.
There are thought to be only 4,500-7,500 snow leopards in the wild, living in an arc stretching from Mongolia through to Pakistan.
Professor Oleg Mitropolsky, a zoologist based here in the Uzbek capital, is an internationally renowned snow leopard expert.
He said: "There are two small groups in the western Tien Shan range (the name means "celestial mountains"), one moving about on Uzbek and Kazakh territory, of about 30-40 animals, and the other, 10-15 strong, in Kyrgyzstan.
"Our most important tasks are to conserve the surviving animals, and to link the two groups with a corridor, so they can migrate and mingle.
"We have agreements with local communities in the three countries, by which they undertake to protect natural resources.
"We have good local contacts: there were three cases where leopards were shot for their pelts, and we talked to the village chiefs."
The project supports the villages, not by paying them directly but by improving water and gas supplies, to reduce deforestation and encourage people to stay put.
This helps to keep poachers at bay. Another similar initiative involves helping the villagers to buy beehives, as a way of earning money.
Professor Mitropolsky's team has even had some success with the poachers themselves, persuading some to report anonymously what they have caught. But he feels he is not getting the backing he needs from the politicians.
"Four or five years ago", he says, "the presidents of our three countries met in a traditional nomads' tent, a yurt. It was decorated with the skins of 200 snow leopards.
"They hadn't all been killed recently, admittedly. But it set an example to the local hunters, and they promptly took the hint.
Only a few thousand wild snow leopards survive
"The leopards' greatest enemy now is the bureaucrat with a rubber stamp who issues hunting licences - not for leopards, but for the marmots which are their summer prey."
The professor has no illusions about the animals' future: "They live in areas so remote that if we fail to act the poachers will certainly get them.
"There are plenty of military people in those cross-border areas, too. And every officer dreams of having a snow leopard skin hanging above his bed."
In a country with a human rights record as appalling as Uzbekistan's, that could be a provocative and even dangerous statement to make.
But what worries Professor Mitropolsky far more is the fact that the Global Environment Facility's funding for his project is due to end in June 2006.
Asked how long the leopards will last if GEF turns down his request for an extension, he lapses from Russian into English and laughs ruefully: "Not long time."