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By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters

ULAN BATOR, May 12, Reuter – The rugged mountain areas of western Mongolia have become a playground for some of the world’s richest hunters, but conservationists are concerned over the threat to the rare snow leopard.

The Mongolian government last year set a quota of five snow leopards for hunters willing to pay 16,000 U.S. dollars, and in the event, three of the elusive animals were shot, two by Mexicans and one by an American.

The quota for this year has been set at five more snow leopards, magnificent creatures with creamy speckled coats and long bushy tails.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are only 1,000 snow leopards left in the world, but the Mongolians say there are 3,000 in their land-locked central Asian country alone.

“We know the snow leopard is in the international red book of endangered species, but because of an increase in numbers, we decided to open snow leopard hunting temporarily,” senior tourist official D. Dorjinamjim told Reuters.

“When the number of animals increases, they sometimes attack cattle or people. We have to keep their number under control or there will be a problem as disastrous as killing too many,” he said.

But he said that a change of policy was being considered following adverse publicity abroad.

“We are aware of this concern. We have received protests, especially from England,” Dorjinamjim said.

Last year, 180 hunters, mostly Americans and Japanese, came to Mongolia in the hope of bagging any of a wide range of wild game.

The fees are high, but opportunities are almost unparalleled.

Hunters can aim their rifles at the world’s largest wild sheep, the Argali, and also at ibex, wild boar, brown bears, antelopes and of course snow leopards.

“The first hunter this year took a wild sheep with horns 60 inches (152 cm) long, among the longest ever found in the world,” said Dorjinamjim.

Fees vary depending on what animals a hunter kills, but the basic fee is 5,200 dollars for 10 days hunting in the Altai Mountains or in the Gobi region.

The package-deal price for a killing one ibex and one wild sheep is 13,800 dollars, while each extra wild sheep costs 7,000 dollars.

According to the carefully-constructed fee structure, hunters must pay an additional 500 dollars for each extra inch if their victim has horns longer than 52.5 inches (133 cm).

Another endangered species in Mongolia is the small wild horse known as Przewalski’s horse, but Mongolia is not encouraging the killing of them.

Officials said there were only 30 to 40 of the donkey-like animals left in Mongolia and they want help from the international community to prevent the species from becoming extinct. REUTER NNNN

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