The Snow leopard is (controversially) considered vulnerable (IUCN, 2017) across its entire range in Central Asia, including in Russia. Conservation work remains critical.
Some snow leopard researchers believe we do not have sufficient data and advocate for an Endangered status. As of 2020, approximately 100 snow leopards (Panthera uncia) remain in Russia, mostly in the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion. As an apex predator, this beautiful cat plays a critical role in maintaining ecological balance in the region, from large mammals down to grazing grasses and even rodents.
Scientists from Altaisky Nature Reserve, Sailyugemsky National Park, and regional protected areas have spent the last decade 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.
Over the years, 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 camera-traps and other technology, implemented strategies to monitor and reduce poaching, designed data collection methods, promoted community collaborations, and financially supported numerous surveying and anti-poaching programs over that time.
Critical populations of snow leopards occupy Altai Republic’s remote ridges in Argut, Sailyugem, Ukok, and Chikhacheva , and the cats make transboundary commutes into Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China. They are reproducing successfully, and young cats regularly seek new habitat in the region. Progress!
Threats and community snow leopard conservation
All of the research has driven one point home: snow leopards and other large mammals still face significant poaching pressure in even the most inaccessible places. 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 creatures of habit, year in and out. In remote regions like this, poaching may be a critical source of income for a local family. The smuggler’s supply chain stretches to Asian countries with a demand for animal parts.
Since 1998, there have been ambitious snow leopard conservation and enforcement efforts, including anti-poaching programs, 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 snow leopard habitat is completely outside of protected areas, or is insufficiently protected.
Poachers turned protectors
In 2012, The Altai Project joined Altai’s leading snow leopard researchers and protected areas to launch a long-term project to convert poachers into snow leopard protectors. In 2014, Mergen Markov, a former poacher and now gainfully employed park ranger, won a Disney Conservation Hero award, following our nomination. Since then Sailyugemsky National Park continues the initiative – a critical tool in building community participation in snow leopard conservation and protecting wildlife.
Many resources have been devoted to developing alternative income sources in Altai, 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:
- Supporting local conservation, research, and enforcement activities
- Facilitating the development and testing of poacher detection systems
- Supporting ecotourism infrastructure development and marketing efforts
- Creating new and strengthening existing protected areas
- Only using wild snow leopard imagery