From Poacher to Protector

In 2010, Sergei Spitsyn, director of Arkhar NGO and a senior scientist at Altaisky State Nature Reserve, pinpointed the locations of two snow leopards in the Argut River basin via sign survey and camera-trapping. In 2013, with Sergei’s leadership and expertise, The Altai Project began a radical initiative to identify and engage poachers in snow leopard conservation. Snow leopards are one of Russia’s most endangered species and mostly limited to the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion where surveys revealed fewer than 100 cats remaining. Research indicates that what was the largest Russian snow leopard population in the Argut basin in Altai Republic (30-40 animals) was almost extirpated by snaring in the 1990’s. Currently, no more than 10 leopards survive there, up from as few as 2 when our project began 4 years ago.

SONY DSCWe first met Mergen Markov, an indigenous herder and hunter, when a local outfitter pointed him out. Further research told us that Mergen was known for targeting both legal and protected endangered species, including snow leopard. As we began to get to know Mergen, we learned that he came from a long line of skilled hunters sharing backcountry survival, tracking, and hunting skills through many generations. Each spring, summer, and fall, men (often with their families, living in yurts) tend to their livestock and maintain their family farms, moving herds between seasonal pastures. When winter comes, male villagers head into the mountains to hunt whatever they can to sustain their families or to sell, often using wire snares, but sometimes, unregistered firearms.

After learning of Mergen, Sergei Spitsyn arranged a meeting between during which they both  cautiously began to get acquainted. Each had a lot to lose – Mergen, his freedom and his family’s livelihood, and Sergei, the risk of revealing too much about the whereabouts of Argut’s snow leopards and his enforcement strategies. As they grew more confident of one other, Sergei explained more about the importance of snow leopards in Russia, their endangered status, and what was being done to study and protect the big cats. Sergei went on to explain our new incentive program to turn poachers into protectors by engaging them in our conservation research and in community outreach.

Mergen agreed to be the program’s first participant.

With a bit of training and a signed and binding contract, Mergen was equipped with a camera-trap and told that if he could provide new images of a snow leopard not previously identified and show us the location where the image was taken, he would be rewarded with a payment equivalent to $800. If, after one year, that same snow leopard was still alive and appearing on camera-traps in the area, Mergen would receive an additional payment of $2,000. The total amount of $2,800 is more than a local hunter can earn annually for poaching. And, the money would be earned legally and with significantly less risk for Mergen and his family.

In his very first winter working with us, Mergen captured stunning images of two snow leopard cubs playfully tussling. A few months later, and in a different location, his cameras photographed an adult snow leopard that is new to the area. Mergen has become a valued member of Sergei’s expedition team, traveling for weeks at a time to aid with enforcement patrols and to scout new sightings of snow leopard tracks, markings and to deploy camera-traps in promising new locations. To reinforce his role and provide him with added financial security, our teams regularly rent horses from him. Mergen is proud of his contribution to snow leopard conservation. We recently published a bilingual Russian-Altaian language brochure on the importance of snow leopards to Argut, and Sergei was delighted to observe Mergen proudly distributing the brochure to other hunters in the village, including his own father. In the last few months, Mergen has worked with our team to identify other potential poachers for enrollment in this program. In May 2014 Mergen conducted his first independent snow leopard surveying trip, reporting in regularly using a GPS tracking device as he moves between locations.

To the best of our knowledge, there were zero snares set for large game in our snow leopard target area (4 main tributary river valleys to the Argut River) this past winter. The number of known snow leopards in the area has grown from just 2 cats in 2010-11 to at least 5-6 as of April 2014. We know that there are connectivity corridors connecting with populations in Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia, and we are extremely hopeful that as life in Argut becomes less risky for snow leopards, more cats will disperse into the region from other areas, and that females will successfully reproduce.