NEW YORK, July 13 (UPI) -- A surprisingly healthy population of rare snow leopards has been discovered living in the mountainous reaches of northeastern Afghanistan, conservationists say.
A study by the Wildlife Conservation Society says 4,500 to 7,500 of the big cats, which live in some of the world's tallest mountains, are found in a dozen countries in Central Asia.
Remote camera traps documented the presence of snow leopards at 16 locations across a wide landscape in northeastern Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, a WCS release said Wednesday.
The images are the first camera trap records of snow leopards in Afghanistan, it said.
"This is a wonderful discovery -- it shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan," said Peter Zahler, WCS Deputy Director for Asia Programs.
"Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as a key part of Afghanistan's natural heritage."
Snow leopards remain threatened in the region by poaching for their pelts, persecution by shepherds and the capture of live animals for the illegal pet trade, the WCS said.
Snow leopards are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.