Wrongful snow leopard capture in Krasnoyarsk! [2011]

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

UNDP/GEF Altai-Sayan Program posted this commentary on their website regarding the not-too-distant Krasnoyarsk Krai cat-napping of a snow leopard for supposed research purposes, because the very same thing could easily have happened to Altai Republic’s snow leopards.

We are working with people on the ground in Altai Republic to find out how the international community can best help the situation and will keep this site updated.

Capture of a snow leopard – science or poaching?
UNDP/GEF Altai-Sayan Ecoregion website

On March 14, 2011, staff from the Russian Academy of Science Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IEE-RAS) captured a male snow leopard inside the Sayano-Shushensky State Biosphere Reserve in southern Krasnoyarsk Kray as part of a research program to study and monitor snow leopards in southern Siberia.

This event would not be significant in the scientific world if not for several reasons. First – this creature is almost impossibly rare and is protected in all possible Red Books (and in the Russian Federation it has the highest protection category – I) and international conventions. Second, this snow leopard was captured within the boundaries of a state biosphere reserve. Thirdly, this is the first instance of trapping a snow leopard using not a poacher’s snare, but a scientific snare, within Russia. According to the directive published by the Russian Environmental Oversight Agency (RosPrirodNadzor), the goal of the capture was to fit the animal with a radio-collar, release it, and then to monitor the animal’s movements remotely.

The Institute’s staff and the Biosphere Reserve’s leadership speak openly and often of this reasoning. Looking at it from another perspective, not all is as clear as it seems. Firstly, the trapping decision was issued by Russia’s RosPrirodNadzor against the advice of experts whose opinions were solicited by by RosPrirodNadzor’s regional managers. The advice focused on the fact that this group of 7-8 snow leopards living in Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve is the only verified population known in Krasnoyarsk Kray, and the group is relatively well-studied by Reserve staff. Any interference in this group, especially during mating season – the period that the “scientists” chose to catch the snow leopard – is extremely undesirable and may have negative consequences or possibly lead to the complete disappearance of snow leopard in Krasnoyarsk Kray.

The nearest stable population of snow leopards relative to the Sayano-Shushenskaya group is in Tuva Republic, on the border between Russia and Mongolia, approximately 250-300 km away. Capturing any wild animal of this size is dangerous in and of itself due to possible consequences such as death or trauma, something that happens not infrequently when capturing snow leopard or other large cat species (injuries to limbs and teeth, death as result of improper sedation). All well-known snow leopard experts agree with these concerns. Despite the fact that all these issues were raised by the consulted experts, IEE-RAS staff were nonetheless given permission to capture a snow leopard. Moreover, preparations to snare a snow leopard were well underway long before the decision was taken.

Obviously, real experts engaged in studying snow leopards with an eye on protecting the species would not plan trapping during mating season, when the animals are most sensitive to any kind of interference in their “personal” lives. In addition, despite the fact that the RosPrirodNadzor directive required that the animal’s capture and release should occur in the presence of a representative from that agency’s regional office, the animal had already been trapped before the representative arrived on the scene.

The story could have ended there – we have so many violations here that the Biosphere Reserve should, by law, be stopping, but for whatever reason does not. “So they caught a snow leopard… but they released him with a collar… seems like no one suffered.” But in this case, this is just the beginning of this crime thriller. No one made a move to release the snow leopard. It is even now still being illegally held captive. On March 15th, the creature was removed from Krasnoyarsk Kray and transported by helicopter (witnesses report that it was a Ministry of Emergency Situations helicopter) to the neighboring region of Khakassiya Republic, where it will again be caged within the boundaries of another federal biosphere reserve – Khakassky.

The plot thickens around the fact that the directors of both Biosphere Reserves claim to have no knowledge of the relocation, despite the fact that they were both on board the very same helicopter. Why this has occurred is anybody’s guess. When discussing the reasoning behind the snow leopard’s capture, the Institute has repeatedly noted that the aforementioned scientific study is being personally overseen by the Prime Minister [Putin].

The captured leopard has long been known to Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve staff as the dominant male known as “Mongol.” Mongol plays the leading reproductive role in growing this small snow leopard population in the region. If he were to die as a result of a multi-day and pointless confinement, the Sayano-Shushensky snow leopard population would be dealt a serious blow. In his past, Mongol has once before been trapped in a poacher’s snare and survived. He has not been so lucky in escaping the researchers’ snare…

Translation by Jennifer Castner