According to researchers, as many as 120–150 snow leopards inhabit the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion, an area of notable cultural diversity that touches the borders of Russia’s southern Siberia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. However, recent work suggests that there are probably far fewer.
Snow leopards have faced decades of heavy pressures, including the recent illegal trophy hunting of their wild prey from helicopters. Snow leopards depend on native ibex and argali. In the aftermath of the Soviet days, families needed to supplement their diet with wild meat, and the hunting tradition remains strong. Snow leopards are still poached for their furs and body parts, sold primarily to China. Where corrals have not been predator-proofed, herders will kill a snow leopard that preys upon their livestock. Snow leopard survivability is impacted by growing human populations, the presence of armed forces in their mountain habitat, and accelerated large-scale developments like mineral exploration and mining, road and pipeline construction, and fencing. While we do not know how climate change will affect snow leopards, it is clear that melting glaciers will alter the ecology of Central Asia’s mountains.
In 2010, under Phase 1 of our collaborative project with the Altai Assistance Fund, WWF–Russia, United Nations Development Program, the Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai, and Panthera, Rodney Jackson trained local biologists and villagers in camera trapping in the Argut Valley. The team placed cameras in areas reported to offer the best habitat for snow leopards in Russia, but the results have been disappointing. Surveys are now concentrating closer to the Mongolian border where the cat’s presence has been confirmed. We will identify the best corridors whereby snow leopards could reoccupy the prey-rich Argut River valley.
This project involves local herders in camera trapping and patrolling to monitor the area’s wildlife. A key objective is the establishment of Homestays along the edge of national parks, which prohibit permanent human habitation. In the next phase, tourists will be taken on phototreks and offered the opportunity to take wildlife pictures using an array of remote cameras managed by the project, village guides, and participating tourist organizations.