The BRI offers the Central Asian range states of Panthera Uncia a once in a generation chance to bring economic opportunity to a region often overlooked in development. Like all projects of this scale, the ramifications for the area’s biodiversity, and in particular its flagship species Panthera Uncia remains hard to determine. However, previous foreign interventions such as the War in Afghanistan offer us a roadmap for development that benefits both the snow leopard as well as the region’s people. 


The range of the enigmatic snow leopard (Panthera Uncia) covers a vast 1.6 million sq. km of high-altitude ecosystems across twelve states involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. Culturally, the species is considered a ‘flagship’ for many states in its range and plays an important role in the natural identity of Central Asian nations.1 Often called the ‘Keeper of the Watershed’ due to its cascading effect on the various trophic levels maintaining a healthy ecosystem,2 the species has been under considerable pressure for the value of its pelts in fashion, taxidermy and ornamental objects for the majority of the 20th Century.3 Since Tajikistan joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2016, all range states in the BRI are now party to Appendix I of the convention, which bans all trade in snow leopard parts. However, trade is increasing, with a 61% rise in traded pelts over a ten-year period and evidence that its appeal has widened to traditional Chinese medicine and even edible meat. With only 6000-8000 snow leopards left in the wild and the species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, the effect of the BRI within its range states is of great interest. 

“With only 6000-8000 snow leopards left in the wild and the species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, the effect of the BRI within its range states is of great interest.”

The War in Afghanistan 

China’s policy of ‘going out’ or internationalising its industries has seen large numbers of Chinese workers relocated to countries hosting BRI projects, and whilst there has been scant research on the long-term effects of these infrastructure projects in the range of Panthera Uncia, it is perhaps in the anticipated increase in foreign workers and their pay packets that we can draw parallels. The War in Afghanistan that began in 2001 can act as case study for what might be anticipated when large numbers of overseas workers enter this range. Some of the aforementioned increase in trade in Panthera Uncia has been linked to the war in Afghanistan and the deployment of NATO soldiers and private contractors. Initially, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) staff stationed in Afghanistan noticed, through anecdotal encounters, a healthy and vibrant market of snow leopard products in the multiple bases administered by NATO across Afghanistan. WCS then conducted interviews with 400 soldiers returning to Fort Drum in the US through a partnership with the US Department of Defence. The results found that 40% of soldiers had purchased or had seen a colleague purchase wildlife product whilst stationed in Afghanistan. With troop rotations reaching 80,000 per year at the peak of the conflict, this is not an insignificant number. The issue was not just that soldiers were purchasing snow leopard products, but that they had also created a market for the illegal wildlife trade that would not have previously existed. The international staff and their salaries suddenly introduced significant purchasing power into an impoverished country rocked by conflict and with penetrable, uncontrolled borders. Furthermore, the opportunistic sellers who previously had no buyers for snow leopard products and thus no reason to partake in the illegal trade suddenly began to have a consistent and well-paid customer base.4 

Supply or Demand? 

The BRI by its very design facilitates freer movement of goods, people and ideas and with that the opportunity for trade in snow leopard parts, and there are suggestions that the area could begin to rival the markets of South East Asia as a new hub for the illegal wildlife trade. The relationship between supply and demand in the illegal wildlife trade is a complex one and the two are often symbiotic. In addition, evidence from trade in other big felines indicates that a supply driven market can convert to a demand one quickly with the associated criminal practices around it.5 For countries within Central Asia expecting a boom in foreign workers and tourists due to the BRI, similar challenges may arise.6 Whilst Western soldiers are not a traditional market for snow leopard products, there is evidence that the pelt and by-products of Panthera Uncia already have a demand market in China and thus an influx of Chinese workers and investors could place Panthera Uncia under considerable pressure.7 


Once again, the war in Afghanistan offers us case studies on how to navigate the effects of BRI in Snow Leopard range states. 

Small Changes, Big Outcomes 

Firstly, demand intervention should be targeted at all workers deploying to the country through ‘pre-deployment’ training aimed at explaining both the impact of the illegal wildlife trade and the large fines involved if caught under Appendix I of CITES. This training can be extended to border staff in range states to empower them to intervene and increase convictions at both the international border as well as among street sellers.8 The successful 2016 WCS programme can act as a case study for this. By working across departments and local actors, the NGO tailored training to raise awareness regarding laws prohibiting wildlife trade as well as the real impact that the trade had on the country the soldiers were supposed to be helping. The result was impressive, with no wildlife furs found on subsequent surveys in the traditional marketplaces. The training of border staff also allows collaboration between different national teams and can help create informal and formal asset protection and policy networks as the BRI increases collaboration and brings nations closer together.9 As the driver of the BRI, Chinese state entities have an opportunity to implement these relatively low-cost schemes as part of BRI projects to demonstrate leadership in their new role of custodians of environmental change within the region. 

People are the prize 

Secondly, as the BRI brings investment, infrastructure and the associated increase in people the opportunity for human-wildlife conflict and retaliation toward Panthera Uncia potentially increases. There is evidence that this conflict can increase informal markets for snow leopard products and thus facilitate more targeted poaching. To counter this, a system of financial incentives to mitigate poaching should be adopted. These can be as simple as a payment scheme for farmers in snow leopard range for livestock lost to hunting.10 There are examples of community administered schemes within Afghanistan that can serve as best practice for adoption and these schemes can have the multiplier effect of not only reducing snow leopard deaths but also building a consensus of support for the BRI initiative amongst the rural and remote communities that that are adjacent to the projects.

Eco-Tourism to the rescue? 

Finally, the BRI and its potential increase in both labourers with leisure time and tourists should be used as an opportunity to diversify income. In spite of the War in Afghanistan, the country was still able to develop a relatively healthy tourism industry in the newly gazetted Wakhan National Park. Tourist numbers there have increased year by year, allowing local people to generate conservation-based income for preserving the dramatic cultural and natural landscapes they call home.11 The additional presence of snow leopards in these natural areas can act as extra allure; by conserving cultural attractions and snow leopards to generate sustainable forms of income, it is hoped that the community will be incentivised to protect snow leopards into the future. Given the already burgeoning tourism trade in countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan there is scope to target BRI workers as a quick and reliable tourism market especially if more focus is placed on sustainable protected areas with the associated infrastructure. 

“As the driver of the BRI, Chinese state entities have an opportunity to implement these relatively low-cost schemes as part of BRI projects to demonstrate leadership in their new role of custodians of environmental change within the region.” 

Discussion and Recommendations 

Previous investment and movement of people in the region during the War in Afghanistan saw a rise in the illegal trade in Panthera Uncia pelts. BRI could constitute a potential catalyst for a general increase for illegal trade due to the potential increase in migrant labour who already have a demand for the snow leopard products. 

To counter this, national governments and BRI investors should incorporate three schemes as part of the BRI investment: 

  • Demand suppression through training of migrant labour and those policing borders. 
  • Financial incentives to limit human-wildlife conflict. 
  • Sustainable tourism development. 

The snow leopard is an asset for its range states and the short-term needs of BRI projects should be countered with the long-term responsibility to protecting this ecologically and culturally significant species. 

[1] Dehgan, Alex. The Snow Leopard Project : And Other Adventures in Warzone Conservation. New York, Publicaffairs, 2019. 

[2] Snow Leopard Working Secretariat. 2013. Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. 

[3] Geptner, V G, et al. Mammals of the Soviet Union. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Libraries And National Science Foundation, 1988. 

[4] Kretser, H.E., Wildlife trade products available to U.S. military personnel serving abroad.

[5] Reuter, A., Maffei, L., Polisar, J. & Radachowsky, J. Jaguar Hunting and Trafficking in Mesoamerica (Wildlife Conservation Society, 2018). 

[6] Garibov, 2016, The Trans-Caspian Corridor: Geopolitics of Transportation in Central Eurasia 

[7] EIA (2008). Skin Deep: The need for effective enforcement to combat the Asian Big Cat skin trade. Briefing for the 57th Meeting of the CITES Standing Committee FIC Europe. Brussels, Belgium. 

EIA (2012) Briefing on snow leopards in illegal trade – Asia’s forgotten cats. EIA International. 

[8] Farhadinia, Mohammad S., et al. “Belt and Road Initiative May Create New Supplies for Illegal Wildlife Trade in Large Carnivores.” 

[9] Farhadinia, Mohammad S., et al. “Belt and Road Initiative May Create New Supplies for Illegal Wildlife Trade in Large Carnivores.” 

[10] Farhadinia, Mohammad S., et al. “Belt and Road Initiative May Create New Supplies for Illegal Wildlife Trade in Large Carnivores.” 

[11] Simms, Anthony, et al. “Saving Threatened Species in Afghanistan: Snow Leopards in the Wakhan Corridor.” 


The report is published by the Oxford University Silk Road Society Think Tank with the support of the IIGF Green Belt and Road Initiative Center. ‘The Central Asia Way’ policy report analyses the social and environmental impacts, risks, and opportunities for regional partners and China as BRI projects continue to expand into Central Asia. This report maps out the intersection of BRI with Central Asia’s development path, and argues that an opportunity is open to explore innovative responses to the challenges of green governance.

The Oxford University Silk Road Society was established in 2017 by enterprising students keen to explore, research and discuss the countries, cultures, and peoples of the Silk Roads, both modern and historical. Through case studies or holistic reports, the think tank strive to produce rigorous, detailed analysis on the ongoing efforts to improve sustainability in the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and make their own policy recommendations – to governments and private enterprise alike.

The full report is available on the Oxford University Silk Road Society’s website here or on our website here, with a foreword from the Founding Director of the Green BRI Center, Dr. Christoph NEDOPIL WANG. 

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Jody Bragger is currently studying for his MPhil in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management through the School of the Environment at Hertford College, University of Oxford. Prior to this Jody has had a varied professional and academic career. He served eight years as a British Army officer in the Coldstream Guards. During this tenure he worked on intelligence collaboration in Helmand province, Afghanistan, opened the Palestinian Officer's academy in the West Bank and served on attachment with the United Nations in Somalia. It was here that he founded the Mogadishu Marathon, the country's first since the outbreak of civil war 26 years prior. 

As an expedition film producer, he has won multiple awards in the adventure film space including at Banff, Kendall and Ottawa film festivals, most recently for his film about running across the nation of Tajikistan. He is currently the CEO of Midnight Runners which is a global, community-based sports organisation that provides free to use fitness on six continents. He holds a degree from the University of Leeds and attended the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst to commission. In his spare time, he boxes and competes in ultra-mountain marathons. 

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