With its smoky-grey spotted coat, luminous eyes and wide paws for walking on snow, the snow leopard is the poster-child of Tajikistan's fauna. Around 200 cats are thought to be resident in the high mountains, making up around 5% of the world population. They are endangered due to poaching and depletion of prey. Grey wolves and, more rarely, brown bear also roam the mountain sides.
Top of the mountain carnivores' take-away menu is the mighty Marco Polo sheep. The Siberian ibex is another common hooved treat, whereas the markhor goat is very rare. This beardy creature has long corkscrew horns that look like snakes, giving it a rather demonic appearance. Like the ibex, it has an impressive ability to climb cliffs. There may be fewer than 700 markhor left in Tajkistan, and globally fewer than 5,500 spread across isolated regions of the central Asian massif.
Sentinel marmot are commonly heard whistling to warn their colonies of danger. Ihese large golden rodents are eaten by land-dwelling carnivores and birds of prey alike (see box on birds, overleaf), as are Tolai hares, grey hamsters and Pamiri voles.
Herds of the shaggy domestic yak are a common sight grazing the alpine sedge meadows. If you are lucky you may also encounter Bactrian camels along the Wakhan or the Pamir Highway.
The lower forested environments are home to brown bear, wolf, fox, wild boar, urial sheep and porcupine. The tugai forests are a key habitat for endangered Bukhara red deer, a relative of the European red deer. The tugai was once roamed by the now extinct Caspian tiger and is still home to the golden jackal and striped hyena more commonly found in the neighbouring steppe of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Goitered gazelle used to live in the tugai and steppe, but in the last century numbers dwindled to virtual extinction through hunting and habitat loss. The steppe tortoise can be found in low-lying open habitats.
Tajikistan is a global hotspot for the Apollo (Parnassius) butterfly, with 15 of the world's 40 species represented. Unfortunately a number of these beautiful white butterflies, with black and red markings, are threatened due to the collecting trade. A new species of Apollo butterfly was discovered in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 2006, so it seems likely that there are other species of insects yet to be discovered in this largely inaccessible part of the world.
A large number of the animals mentioned here are rare or elusive and are unlikely to be spotted by the casual visitor (apart from marmots, ibex, yak and various birds. Binoculars, a large dose of patience and preferably the knowledge of a local guide are ingredients to successful wildlife watching.
The following conservation charities have carried out work in the area: Flora and Fauna International (www.fauna-flora.org/explore/tajikistan/) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org/saving-wild-places/asia/pamir-mountains-central-asia. aspx).