Sergei Spitsyn, a long-time partner and ranger at Altaisky State Nature Reserve, just returned from an expedition along the lower and middle Argut River. With the participation of two residents from the nearby village of Inegen, he had set camera traps in likely locations to learn more about what animals still inhabit the area. The camera traps are part of a larger project funded by The Altai Project, Altai Assistance Project, Snow Leopard Conservancy and by UNDP/GEF and WWF in the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.
Although the camera trappers hadn’t expected to find any snow leopards along the lower and even middle stretches of the Argut River, they did capture 1000+ images of many other animals.
In addition to that curious mountain goat, they also glimpsed red maral deer, Altai snowcock (bird pictured below), lynx, bears, foxes, and other creatures.
Quoting from the Rserve’s press release:
“Over a month’s operation, the cameras collected over 1000 images of various resident species in Argut: bears, maral red deer, musk deer, foxes, Siberian mountain goats, Altai snowcocks, and even lynx. Despite this, the researchers’ cameras were unable to record images of snow leopard in this portion of the valley, easily accessible from local villages. No evidence of snow leopard was found along the lower stretch of the Argut River during expeditions led by Altaisky Reserve during the years of 2003-2008. Local residents report that snow leopards had been eliminated as early as the 1980s and 90s in this region; one can still find the remnants of old abbatises, where poachers snares for the predator. No snares have been set in those places since 2000, but snow leopards have yet to return to these places, despite the excellent habitat and a wealth of prey: Siberian mountain goats, red maral deer, musk deer, and Altai snowcock. This is hope that with proper protection, snow leopard will return to these parts in the near future.
Despite the lack of snow leopards, the lower Argut basin is an ideal place to conduct ecotourism with the participation of local residents. The area is readily accessible and boasts beautiful scenery and rich wildlife. By inviting tourists to operate camera traps, visitors have the experience of hunting, but instead of pelts or horns as trophies, they come away with unique pictures of living animals and birds and learn about the secret lives of Argut’s ancient residents. For all of these reasons, Argut is one of the most attractive places along the transboundary “Land of the Snow Leopard” route, developed jointly by UNDP/GEF and WWF. The Land of the Snow Leopard project is actively engaging local residents in Altai, Tuva, and Western Mongolia in ecotourism development and rare species conservation in the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.
We are really excited to see future images as the team works its way upriver. An important but easily overlooked step in wildlife conservation is knowing what is in need of protection. Careful use of camera trap studies is a great and scientifically-reliable way to survey habitats. It’s also immensely gratifying, as many of these species are often elusive and shy around humans (with good reason!).