Picture it: Russian researchers use cameras to take snow leopard census
The snow leopard is a rare and elusive animal. In fact, it's commonly known as the “ghost of the mountains.” But researchers in the Altai Mountains, where the borders of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China come together, are increasingly coming face to face with this endangered animal. They are accomplishing this through a growing network of cameras that let them track the animals.
Sailyugem National Park is in Russia’s Altai Republic. On a recent day, rangers in ski goggles and huge parkas were retrieving footage from a high-altitude camera. The trap is a black box that holds a dozen batteries, a memory card and a motion-activated lens. It is tucked into a rocky ridge where snow leopards typically travel in search of prey. They sneak down from above to break the victim’s neck with one crunch of their powerful jaws.
“When camera traps appeared recently it was a huge boost because scientists got their hands not just on footprints but on photographs of the leopard itself," said the park’s assistant director, Denis Malikov. He said this allows scientists to identify individuals and map their locations.
No one knows how many snow leopards are in Russia. But hunting and illegal snares that trap them are thought to have reduced the population to fewer than 70. This is out of a global population of somewhere around 4,700. About 40 researchers from several organizations are conducting the first-ever nationwide count of snow leopards. They hope that more exact numbers will highlight the need for conservation measures. These would include expanding protected areas.
Cameras Allow For More Specific Cataloguing Of Animals
The footage provided by camera traps is the closest look yet at a creature that resides in some of the most remote and hard-to-reach mountains in the world. In Sailyugem, winter temperatures can drop below minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit and there are no roads besides a few dirt tracks. To reach snow leopard habitats, rangers must drive their jeeps along rocky frozen rivers and then hike up steep mountainsides on horseback or on foot.
Earlier population estimates were based mainly on scientists’ measurements of the size of snow leopard paw prints. But this method is not exact. The camera traps allow them to identify individuals by their unique pattern of rosettes. These are the spots found on each leopard’s thick coat of white, grey or pale tan fur.
As an example, Malikov showed footage of a snow leopard the staff calls Khan. “He’s the dominant male. He looks like a confident animal; look how he passes by the camera trap,” Malikov said.
American Leopard Specialist Introduced Camera Traps To Altai
Modern camera traps were first brought to Altai in 2010, by Rodney Jackson, an American leopard expert. Since then, the World Wildlife Fund has been periodically donating them to local parks and researchers. More than 180 camera traps in the Altai and nearby Sayan Mountains are now monitoring snow leopards and other wildlife. Fifty more are scheduled to be installed by the end of the year.
Leopards are frequently recorded marking their territory by scraping out small holes and leaving urine, excrement or scent-sprays. They often come up to sniff the camera. A camera trap in the nearby region of Buryatia caught a snow leopard calling out for potential mates.
Locals Believe The Animal Is Sacred, But Some Also Hunt It
The snow leopard is a sacred animal for the Altai people who live in the region. Maya Erlinbayeva, an educational specialist at Sailyugem National Park, says they consider it to be the guardian of the ancestral spirits that they worship. But poverty and economic trouble in the 1990s drove some locals to kill snow leopards for their fur.
The hunting has declined, thanks in part to a harsher punishment of up to seven years in prison. But the simple snare traps that are still set for musk deer frequently catch snow leopards by mistake. Rangers often find dozens of snares during expeditions into the park, and say this is the main threat to snow leopards in Russia. Worldwide, an estimated 221-450 snow leopards are killed each year for trade.
“Most snow leopard and musk deer habitats in Siberia coincide, so the irbis [snow leopard] gets caught in snares set for musk deer,” said Alexander Karnaukhov. He is a biologist at the World Wildlife Fund.
Unpredictable Weather From Climate Change
Another possible danger is climate change, which some local herders say is making the weather unpredictable. Experts worry that large snowfalls will become more frequent. This could prevent animals such as ibex and argali from grazing. As a result, snow leopards would be deprived of their prey.
In addition, the thawing of permafrost soil has been infecting the mammals that the leopards eat with diseases. These are then passed up the food chain, and some snow leopards have already been affected.
Alexey Kokorin, a World Wildlife Fund climate expert, said change is necessary. “If we better protect the snow leopard from poaching, then we will raise its ability to adapt to climate change,” he said.