Call of the wild GHS grad researches snow leopards in central Asia

April 15, 2019

Kalispell native Kaitlyn Anderson has heard the call of the wild from abroad and answered.

The 22-year-old spent the 2017-18 school year studying abroad in Kyrgyzstan, improving her Russian language skills and researching the elusive snow leopard while interning for the organization Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization, on a Boren Scholarship.

The scholarship program sends undergraduates “to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests, and underrepresented in study abroad programs,” according to www.borenawards.org.

The 2015 Glacier High School graduate is currently a senior at the University of Montana majoring in resource conservation and minoring in wildlife biology and works part time for Panthera as an independent researcher. She is working on a report on the illegal wildlife trade of snow leopards in central Asia.

Originally when she received the scholarship, Anderson planned to study tigers in eastern Russia, inspired by the book “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival,” by John Vaillant.

“I read this book and was captivated by this elusive tiger that lived in these remote areas of Russia,” Anderson, intrigued by the complex coexistence and of people living among wildlife and the conflicts that come with it.

Plans changed, however, and she set her sights on the snow leopards of Kyrgyzstan. Snow leopards are known to be elusive and are nicknamed the “ghosts of the mountains,” which has meant data is lacking.

She noted in her scholarship essay that the illegal wildlife trade of big cats poses a national security threat as it may serve as a funding source for terrorist or extremist groups/activities by selling the parts of the poached predators.

In the field, she began to see the different threads of that coexistence woven into a web of different issues.

“Villagers living high in these mountain communities where snow leopards live come into conflicts where snow leopards are attacking their livestock,” Anderson said. “Family life in high mountain villages is dependent on their livestock to feed their families and make a little bit of income.”

“In these communities hunting from locals is illegal because it’s too expensive to buy permits to hunt local species. A lot of them still hunt in an illegal fashion,” she said, likely in scenarios to prevent or retaliate snow leopard attacks on livestock.

“Once killed, the snow leopard, instead of leaving it, burying it, or hiding it, people will sell it to someone to make a little bit of money from it,” she said. “The person who bought it will try to smuggle it into another country where there may be bigger markets to sell it to a trader who can then sell that snow leopard for a higher price to public.”

Yet, she said there are local efforts to combat illegal hunting.

“It’s a difficult topic to talk about,” she said.

The majority of her time in Kyrgyzstan was spent living in the city of Bishkek. With a population of nearly 1 million residents, it was a bit overwhelming for someone coming from an entire state with a little over a million people. What she enjoyed thoroughly was the summer time spent out in the field, traveling about 15 hours by car to reach the Chong-Alay District to reach the Alay Mountains. Then, traveling by horseback to assist in a camera trap study to monitor snow leopard populations and dynamics. She said the mountains were “remarkably similar” to the area between Montana and Idaho.

Some of the local efforts to protect wildlife come in the form of “community conservancies” where men take up the responsibility of serving as rangers.

“They do patrols and try to catch poachers and monitor wildlife,” Anderson said, primarily ungulates such as wild sheep and goats, but also snow leopards and lynx.

“Most of their focus is on prey species since they have incentive if they reach a certain capacity of prey species they can host trophy hunting. That’s where an international hunter will pay a couple thousand to hunt the massive sheep and goats. The most famous is the Marco Polo sheep and the wild goats called ibex,” she said.

As a Boren scholar, Anderson’s next item of business is spending a year in post-scholarship service. While she initially considered working for the International Affairs Department of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - she is now looking into working for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“That would be the ultimate goal, working more within natural-resource management and development in developing countries,” she said.

In the meantime, Anderson is waiting to hear back about an application to the Fulbright Program to continue studying and researching abroad. If she is accepted, her goal is a project that focuses on human and wildlife conflicts in the Pamir Mountains of central Asia.

“I really fell in love with central Asia. Living there and learning about the culture and heritage and exploring the mountains and studying the wildlife,” Anderson said, adding that she wants to live there someday, but first, she plans to attend graduate school.

It’s no surprise that her interest in conservation stems from her Montana roots. Growing up, her family had horses and a few acres next to forestland. She would often travel around on horseback, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors.

“I think that’s what really resonated with me about nature and how important it is to humans and feeling that connectedness to it,” she added.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.