New project on protection of snow leopard will unite Russia and Kazakhstan
The snow leopard is so rare and elusive that it’s commonly known as the “ghost of the mountains”. But researchers in the Altai mountains, where the borders of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China converge, are increasingly coming face to face with this endangered animal through a growing network of camera traps, The Guardian reported.
On a recent day in Sailyugem national park in Russia’s Altai Republic, rangers in ski goggles and huge parkas were retrieving footage from a high-altitude camera trap – a black box holding a dozen AA batteries, a memory card and a motion-activated lens – nestled among a cluster of dark burgundy rocks covered with orange and green lichen. Such windswept ridges are where snow leopards typically travel in search of prey such as ibex and musk deer, sneaking down from above to break the victim’s neck with one crunch of their powerful jaws.
“When camera traps appeared recently it was a huge boost because scientists got their hands not just on footprints but on photographs of the leopard itself, so we can identify individuals and their area of distribution,” said the park’s assistant director, Denis Malikov.
No one knows how many snow leopards there are in Russia, although poaching and illegal snares are thought to have reduced the population to less than 70 out of a global population of at least 4,700. About 40 researchers from NGOs including the World Wildlife Fund, national parks, and state wildlife protection authorities are conducting the first ever nationwide snow leopard census, hoping that exact information about its numbers and range will highlight the need for conservation measures such as expanding protected areas.
The footage the camera traps provide is the closest look yet at a creature that resides in some of the most remote and inaccessible mountains in the world, from the Himalayas to the Tian Shan in Central Asia to the Altai and Sayan ranges in Siberia. In Sailyugem, where winter temperatures can drop below -45C and there are no roads besides a few dirt tracks, rangers drive jeeps and four-wheelers along the rocky frozen rivers at the bottom of each valley and hike up steep mountainsides on horseback or by foot to reach far-flung snow leopard habitats.
Earlier population estimates were based mainly on scientists’ measurements of the size of snow leopard paw prints, a method prone to error. The camera traps allow them to identify individuals by the unique pattern of rosettes, or black and brown spots, found on each leopard’s thick coat of white, grey or pale tan fur.
As an example, Malikov showed footage of a snow leopard the staff have dubbed Khan. “He’s the dominant male. He looks like a confident animal; look how he passes by the camera trap,” Malikov said.
Modern camera traps were first brought to Altai in 2010 by Rodney Jackson, an American leopard expert, and since then the WWF has been periodically donating them to local parks and researchers. More than 180 camera traps in the Altai and Sayan mountains are now monitoring leopards and other wildlife such as the argali mountain sheep, a species known for its majestic curved horns that is also threatened in Russia due to poaching. Fifty more camera traps are planned to be installed by the end of the year.
Leopards are frequently recorded marking their territory by scraping out small holes and leaving urine, scat or scent-sprays. They often come up to sniff the camera. A camera trap in the nearby region of Buryatia caught a snow leopard calling potential mates with a hoarse bellow.
“They’re very curious,” said Alexander Karnaukhov, a WWF biologist. “They don’t fear camera traps or human tracks.”
Leopards can also be distinguished through DNA analysis of excrement, such as the small dropping that the lead tracker and wolf hunter Valery Orgunov discovered in the snow near leopard prints recently. “He’s like the boss here,” Orgunov said, showing how a leopard claw had scratched four lines into a red stone.
The snow leopard is a holy animal for the Altai people, who consider it to be the guardian of the ancestral spirits that they worship, according to Maya Erlinbayeva, an educational specialist at Sailyugem. Its depiction is found among the thousands of ancient petroglyphs in the region and in one of the tattoos on the Princess of Ukok, a 2,400-year-old noblewoman preserved in ice in her tomb in the Altai mountains.
But poverty and economic turmoil in the 1990s drove some locals to poach snow leopards for their pelts. Although that has declined thanks in part to a harsher punishment of up to seven years in prison, the simple snares that are still set for musk deer – whose glands provide a valuable ingredient for traditional medicines in China – frequently catch snow leopards instead. Rangers often find dozens of snares during expeditions into the park’s Argut river valley and say this is the main threat to snow leopards in Russia. Worldwide, an estimated 221-450 snow leopards are killed each year for trade, in retaliation for livestock losses or by non-targeted methods.
“Most snow leopard and musk deer habitats in Siberia coincide, so the irbis [snow leopard] gets caught in snares set for musk deer,” Karnaukhov said. “In most cases it dies; as a rule it’s a long and torturous death.”
Another potential danger is climate change, which some local sheep and yak herders say is making the weather here more volatile. Although the effects of climate change on the Altai mountains have not been thoroughly studied, if large snowfalls grow more frequent they could prevent animals such as ibex and argali from grazing and deprive snow leopards of their prey, according to Alexey Kokorin, head of the WWF Russia climate and energy programme.
In addition, the thawing of permafrost soil has been infecting ungulates with diseases such as scabies and anthrax, which are then passed up the food chain, a WWF study of climate change in Tian Shan found. Snow leopards there have been killed by scabies, it said.
Kokorin said change was necessary. “If we better protect the snow leopard from poaching,” he said, “then we will raise its ability to adapt to climate change.”