The Snow leopard (Uncia uncia) is considered endangered (IUCN, 2008) across its entire range in Central Asia, including in Russia.
As of 2014, fewer than 100 snow leopards remain in Russia, mostly in the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion. As an apex predator, this beautiful cat plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of the region’s ecological community, from large mammals down to grazing grasses and even rodents.
Scientists from Altaisky Nature Reserve, Arkhar NGO, and regional protected areas have spent the last 3 years conducting extensive presence/absence and camera-trapping surveys to gain a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of snow leopard distribution and ecology in Altai and other parts of the cat’s Russian habitat range.
The Altai Project, SUNY-ESF, and Snow Leopard Conservancy have worked intensively to provide financial support, technical and scientific expertise, and equipment. We have collectively provided over dozens of camera-traps, developed and installed anti-poaching monitoring devices, designed data recording technology, and financially supported numerous surveying and anti-poaching expeditions.
Small but critical populations of snow leopards have been located in remote areas in Argut (south central Altai) and on Chikhachev Ridge (southeastern Altai), and evidence of migratory cats has been collected in other areas across southeastern Altai. In July 2012, Arkhar NGO surveyed Tabyn-Bogdo-Ola, the massif that forms the Russia-China border to the south, and found tantalizing evidence of snow leopard activity on the adjacent South Altaisky Ridge, indicating this is a snow leopard route.
All of the surveying work has driven one point home: large numbers of poacher’s snares are found in many regions, even the most inaccessible. Snares and other poaching methods are the biggest threat to snow leopards in Altai. It is easy to catch the leopards with snares, because the cats are very predictable, favoring the same trails, for many years. In remote regions like this, snaring may be the only source of income for a local family. The smuggler’s supply chain travels via Kazakhstan or the Russian Far East to China and other Asian countries with a demand for animal parts. Despite these great distances, this trade can be quite profitable.
Since 1998, there have been ambitious conservation and enforcement efforts in Altai that regularly supported anti-poaching activities, including inter-agency anti-poaching brigades and Game Management Committee patrol teams. Nevertheless the areas to be patrolled remain vast, and staff and resources extremely sparse. Much of the key snow leopard habitat is completely outside of protected areas, or is insufficiently protected, leaving the animals completely open to poachers aside from sporadic enforcement patrols that might stumble upon poachers in the field.
Many projects have been devoted to developing alternative income sources in the local community, but residents living in remote snow leopard habitats often miss the opportunity to participate in such initiatives or obtain support for small business development. A large ecotourism development program called “Land of the Snow Leopard” is aimed at increasing local economic benefit and linking development to wildlife conservation.
We support snow leopard conservation by:
- Fundraising for local conservation, research, and enforcement activities
- Facilitating the development and testing of poacher detection systems
- Supporting ecotourism infrastructure development and marketing efforts