Studying Snow Leopards in Argut and around Altai

Argut Snow Leopard Population Map

In 2010 Panthera gave a generous conservation research grant to SUNY-ESF’s James Gibbs to support the first high-tech snow leopard research in Altai Republic. The grant provided for the purchase of camera traps and supported expedition time to study the snow leopard population in the Argut River watershed. This, in combination with financial and material support from Snow Leopard Conservancy and WWF-Altai-Sayan was enough to get this important effort up and running.

At the time of the grant, previous research had indicated that there was a significant snow leopard population of 30-40 cats in that large area and we wanted to learn more about that population.

In August 2010, Rodney Jackson of Snow Leopard Conservancy traveled to Altai, where he met up with Chagat Almashev from Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai and Sergei Spitsyn from Arkhar NGO. Together they all traveled to Inegen village and conducted a camera-trap training program there with local villagers (with support from UNDP/GEF and FSDA). The villagers and Sergei would work together in the coming months to learn more about snow leopards in the Argut basin.

After an intensive round of 4 winter field expeditions to the northern (lower) reaches of the Argut River valley, we were dismayed to learn that despite the presence of diverse and healthy populations of other large mammals such as Siberian lynx, Siberian mountain goats, red maral deer, ibex, musk deer, wolves, and others, there were no snow leopards to be found. It is thought that intense snare poaching along migratory routes in the region has extirpated the snow leopard here for the time being.

During the upcoming 2011-2012 winter, researchers and local assistants will trek further afield to the more remote southern headwaters region of the Argut River, closer to the border of Kazakhstan. We are hopeful that we will find evidence of snow leopard activity there. In addition, our local partners are conducting simple presence/absence surveys throughout the Republic’s viable snow leopard habitat, including the Sailyugem and Chikhachev Ridges in the southeastern corner of the Republic. Panthera recently provided another thirty cameras, and we are excited to have a much better sense of snow leopards’ lives in Altai within the next year.

Snare poaching is the biggest and most immediate threat to snow leopards in Altai. We are currently working closely with our partners at Arkhar NGO and SUNY-ESF to raise additional funds to support snare removal efforts. We are confident that by reducing poaching pressure on these cats and their prey species, snow leopards will return to the area. They are resilient animals with great reproductive potential and are able to survive in the most challenging rocky and high altitude conditions.

Camera-trapping in the Argut River Watershed
These pictures were all taken using camera traps during the winter months in 2010-2011 in the lower (northern) half of the Argut River watershed.

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