The ancient Scythians, who once lived in the Altai, created beautiful knotted carpets, like the famous Pazyryk rug, ancestor of the vast profusion of Khotans, Shirvans, Malatyas, Karabakhs, Dagestans, Kazaks, Bergamas, Qashkais and Bakhtiaris dramatically unfolded in the paths of disoriented tourists who wander, half-hypnotized by history, through the narrow streets of Istanbul. Running patterns of flowers and deer encircle this masterpiece. For a long time people thought that this spectacular rug couldn't possibly have been woven by the Scythians, and figured that it was commissioned from some more civilized rug maker in Persia or somewhere. But now, dye studies have shown that the pigments in the carpet are the same as those in more mundane Scythian felt pieces, therefore establishing that the peripatetic Scythians were indeed capable of sitting down and tying several thousand cleverly placed knots side by side if they had to.

To weave a carpet, a Scythian needed wool. To get wool, he or she, for nomads are pragmatic about such things, needed herds of sheep. If some theoretical ancient Scythian herded sheep, he must have occasionally woken up on a cold Altaian morning to find that a snow leopard had eaten his sheep. He probably then went out, like angry herders still do today to find that snow leopard and kill it. This was able to go on for thousands of years, long after the Scythians shuffled off their mortal coils, without appreciably diminishing the number of snow leopards. That is due in no small part, to the simple fact that the mountains and steppelands of Asia were for the most part, empty.

Today, the growth of population and changing husbandry practices have pushed the herdsmen higher into snow leopard country. Thus, the encounters are now more frequent and usually worse for the snow leopard than the well-armed, pissed off herdsman. People like The Snow Leopard Conservancy are working to mitigate exactly this problem. These days, there are programs in most countries to compensate herders for their losses rather than just let them go all vigilante on the snow leopards. There are also aid programs to help herders build more snow leopard-proof corrals so the hungry critters have to slink off and kill a gimpy mountain goat like they're supposed to. Most interesting is a program to vaccinate livestock so the flocks are healthier and more animals survive, meaning that even if snow leopards eat some, there's actually a net increase in the herd. I don't think anybody wants to see the snow leopards disappear, not even the herders. Not even the greedy idiots who slaughter them illegally for their parts. The leopards are part of the land. Like the threads of color woven into that ancient carpet, the leopards are inextricable. Pull them out and the weaving unravels, the deer and the flowers lose their shape, the carpet is undone.

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