New Project to Protect Big Cats: First Results for the Persian Leopard on the Kazakh Ustyurt Plateau

Authors: Mark Pestov, Vladimir Terentyev, Aktan Mukhashov, Nurlan Ongarbaev,  Center for Research and Conservation of Biodiversity (Kazakhstan),  Zhaskairat Nurmuhambetov, Agnyaz Pulatov, Ustyurt State Nature Reserve (Kazakhstan),  Salamat Kanbaev , Mukhammed Rakhim Boranbaev, Regional Natural Park Kyzylsai, Tatjana Rosen Conservation X Labs  (USA/Turkmensitan),  and Vera Voronova, ACBK ( Kazakhstan).

A new transboundary project for big cat monitoring and conservation began in the spring of 2023, thanks to the support from the National Geographic Society, Segre’ Foundation, and Conservation X Labs. In Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, it is focused on the conservation of the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana), while in Kyrgyzstan, it is focused on the conservation of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). The National Geographic Society’s “Cores Corridors and Cats across Central Asia” is a three-year (2023-2026) grant that brings conservationists from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan together to advance solutions, such as establishment of new protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) for the conservation of Persian and Snow Leopards. The Segre’ Foundation’s “Snow Leopards and Persian Leopards: A Shared Strategy to Save Them and their Habitat” grant runs for 18-month (2023-2024) to implement measures on antipoaching, conflict prevention and mitigation to protect the Persian leopard and the snow leopard. Both species are on the CMS Central Asian Mammals Initiative species list.


In Kazakhstan, implementing partners are the Biodiversity Research and Conservation Center (BRCC) together with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK). Key government partners include the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve (USNR), the Regional Natural Park Kyzylsai, the Mangistau regional department for the management and regulation of natural resources, the Beyneu authorities for the management of forest resources (Eset and Kolenkili wildlife sanctuaries), the Kenderli-Kayasan protected zone, the Mangistau Territorial Department of Forestry and Wildlife Management, and the Border Service of Kazakhstan.


The project’s goal is to improve the ecological conditions for the Persian leopard and its key prey, urial sheep (Ovis vignei) and goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), both CAMI species. The project builds on previous initiatives, which were sparked by the first detection of a Persian leopard camera trap in the USNR in 2018. Later, until February 2021, this leopard was seen repeatedly on USNR territory and was named Tau Sheri. In June 2021, it was found dead in the northern Mangistau region. (Pestov et al., 2019).


The project’s key activities include: increasing monitoring efforts through camera trapping throughout the Mangistau region to document the presence and status of the Persian leopard and its prey; discussions and cooperation with relevant border authorities to allow for the modification of the border fence between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan so that leopards and their ungulate prey can move freely; and expanding the network of protected areas where the leopard has been found; strengthening international cooperation for the conservation of the leopard; and working with local communities to mitigate human-leopard conflict, reduce poaching pressure, and eliminate the use of traps.


The project is effectively designed to implement the CMS CAMI Strategy for the Conservation of the Persian Leopard 2023-2032 (CMS 2022) and the Kazakhstan Persian leopard Action Plan 2022-2026 (Pestov et al., 2021), as well as work in CMS-identified transboundary conservation priority sites (Farhadinia et al., 2022)


Key results to date include:


  • Increased spatial monitoring as a result of the deployment of 43 camera traps, 10 of which are in the USNR; 8 are in the “South Ustyurt”, a new proposed USNR cluster (Pestov et al., 2022), 14 in the Kyzylsai reserve; 6 in the Kenderli-Kayasan protected zone; and 5 in the in Eset and Kolenkili wildlife sanctuaries. On April 17, 2023, two rangers from reserve Manashi in Kyzylsai, spotted a leopard. Since 2007, at least four leopards have been reliably observed in the Mangistau region.
  • An agreement with the border service to “pilot” border fence modifications to allow leopards and their ungulate prey to move freely. The first camera trap results confirm that such gaps are used by both goitered gazelle and urial sheep.
  • Discussions and work to establish a new PA South Ustyurt is continuing, and once established, a proposal for its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List will be prepared as part of the Cold Winter Deserts of Turan, which was inscribed in 2023 ( Furthermore, the work to help optimize the network of regional protected areas in the Mangistau region has been done and consultations with regional authorities on how best to sensitize communities to the presence of leopards and catalyze support to reduce poaching pressures were conducted. Also issued the press release that was published in more than 10 newspapers in Kazakhstan.


We hope that in the coming years the project team will be able to help restore ecological connectivity, curbing poaching, and increasing the size of protected areas. CMS CAMI will be one of the key platforms to continue the much-needed transboundary dialogue and exchange.



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Farhadinia M., Khorozyan I., Orlinskiy P., Rosen T., Shahriari B., Raza H., Bleyhl B., Karryeva S., Pestov M., Kabir M., Moheb Z., Terentyev V., Askerov E. Priority areas for transboundary conservation of Persian leopards in West Asia and the Caucasus // CAT News Special Issue 15, 2022. P. 57-60.

Pestov M., Nurmukhambetov Z., Munkhashov A., Terentyev V. & Rosen T. First camera trap record of Persian leopard in Ustyurt State Nature Reserve, Kazakhstan. Cat News 69, 2019. P. 14-16.

Pestov M., Plahov K., Terentyev V., Belgubaeva A., Denisov D. Action Plan for the Conservation of the Persian Leopard. Central Asian Desert Initiative (CADI). Nursultan 2021.

Pestov M., Smelyansky I., Laktionov A., Nurmukhambetov Z., Mukhashov A., Terentyev V., Dieterich T., Rosen T. Prospects for a state nature reserve in South Ustyurt in Kazakhstan // FAO. 2022. Proceedings from the International Cold Winter Desert Conference - Central Asian Desert Initiative. 2-3 December, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Tashkent. P. 34-43.  

Last updated on 12 April 2024