As snow leopard expert Sergei Spitsyn and his team traveled through the rugged terrain of Argut basin, anticipation rose at the prospect of finding evidence of snow leopards. Paw prints in the snow and scent markings of urine on rocks would be a welcome sign. Once, at least 30-40 snow leopards existed in Argut basin until wire-snare poaching reduced that number to almost zero in the 1990’s.
Currently, no more than 6-8 leopards survive there, including two kittens.
Wire snare-poaching is the largest threat to snow leopards, and often the only revenue source for local families other than herding. But just 1 or 2 snare-poachers could kill the few remaining leopards should the regular patrols that we support cease. In fact, Sergei and his team removed dozens of wire snares last fall. However, economic alternatives to poaching and livestock herding are very limited for the approximately 100 people living in the middle Argut basin. At the same time Argut is one of Russia’s best snow leopard habitats – roadless and isolated by mountain ridges, glaciers, and rivers with the largest population of the snow leopard’s primary prey, Siberian ibex, elk, and musk deer. We found ourselves searching for the right combination of economic stability for Argut residents and conservation of an endangered cat.
From 2010 to 2012, Sergei Spitsyn began pinpointing the locations of Argut’s remaining snow leopards using methods of sign survey and camera-trapping, and he revisits this area annually. In 2013-14, as patrols and research continued, Sergei was thrilled to see that the number of snares in Argut decreased by 80%. Much of this was due to effective enforcement efforts and outreach to local residents about the penalties of poaching. Then, in 2014 we began our “Reform a Poacher” program, recruiting two men the first year to learn how to study and track snow leopards instead of killing them. One man in particular, Mergen Markov, impressed us so much with his dedication to snow leopard protection that we nominated him, and he consequently won, a Disney Conservation Hero award!
During the project, rehabilitated poachers will, in return for a small honorarium, conduct camera-trapping and surveying to support research, as well as identify previously unidentified snow leopards. If, at the end of the year, the same leopards (identified by spotting patterns) are still present in the project area, the herder receives a larger payment or a small solar array to power his home. During the course of the year, local poachers-turned-conservationists will work on our survey teams and provide horse rentals, an additional family income source.
Our hope is that through the “Sponsor-a-Snow Leopard/Reform-a-Poacher” program that the Argut snow leopard population will be rebuilt to 20-25 felids. Building on last year’s successes, our team will identify additional hunters in the area and train them in wildlife surveys using camera-traps, sign surveys, and scat collection. By involving hunters as valued collaborators, we will increase our team’s capacity beyond the “experts only” model to survey the entire Argut region.
Now that snare-poaching is dramatically reduced and several poachers have been rehabilitated, serving as prominent role models within their community, we must continue to persuade residents of the economic and cultural value of living amidst snow leopards and work toward opening their village to economic returns associated with biodiversity recreation and micro-business development. The “Sponsor-a Snow-Leopard/Reform-a-Poacher” program is proving to be a fantastic intermediary goal.