The snow leopard is (controversially) considered vulnerable (IUCN, 2017) across its entire range in Central Asia, including in Russia. Conservation work remains critical.
Altai Republic is a key northern stronghold for the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). As of 2021, the population in Russia—territory that covers the northern end of the species’ range—is estimated to be at least 65 individual cats. Of this total, two-thirds are found in Altai Republic. The Altai Project has a two-decade commitment to their preservation in Altai. There, the cats maintain ecological balance in their mountain habitats; protecting them protects their mountain landscapes.
Over the last few decades, scientists and researchers have narrowed gaps in our knowledge of snow leopards. Scientists from Altaisky Nature Reserve, Sailyugemsky National Park, and regional protected areas have spent 10+ years gaining 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 collaboratively to provide funding, technical and scientific expertise, and equipment. Currently, The Altai Project provides technical translation and recruits international volunteers to assist in field work.
We can see progress in growing numbers of snow leopards occupying Altai Republic’s remote mountains. Reduced poaching pressure and intact habitats and connection corridors allow cats to migrate and expand into habitats in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China. Females are reproducing successfully, and young cats regularly explore new territories.
Threats and community snow leopard conservation
Fieldwork underscores one disturbing fact: snow leopards and other large mammals still face ongoing 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, with fixed territories. In remote regions like this, poaching may be a critical source of income for a local family. The illicit 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 are extremely sparse. Much of snow leopard habitat is completely outside of protected areas or is insufficiently protected. Without current protections reducing pressure, poaching would definitely increase.
Poachers turned protectors
In 2012, The Altai Project joined Altai’s leading snow leopard researchers and staff working in protected areas to launch “Adopt A Snow Leopard,” a long-term program to convert poachers into snow leopard protectors. One measure of success came just two years later when a former poacher turned park ranger, won a Disney Conservation Hero award, following our nomination. Sailyugemsky National Park now manages the program, 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 as well. That program also teaches local families, especially children, about the importance of the snow leopards with whom they share their landscape.
Note: The Altai Project is committed to only using images of snow leopards in the wild, almost always caught on camera and video traps in Altai, Russia.