Yelena Salmanova: The leopard has become a symbol of the Far East

Yelena Salmanova: The leopard has become a symbol of the Far East

10 November 2014

In an interview during the Russian Geographical Society Festival, Yelena Salmanova, deputy director for science and environmental education at Leopard Land National Park, discussed the nature reserve’s priority activities, funding issues, the Far Eastern leopard’s habits, and the Leopard Keeper contest.

Question: Could you speak about the work of Leopard Land National Park today. You host plenty of high-profile events, international conferences, and public education programmes. Do you have a priority, a strategic focus?


Yelena Salmanova: There is no single priority today. When the park was being created, our priority was working with local people, because they live in close proximity to the predator. Humans have an impact on the leopard, and leopards have an impact on humans. This includes poaching (luckily, the leopard is not hunted, but animals constituting the leopard’s food sources are) and forest fires, which break out mainly through the fault of local residents.


Question: How does the leopard affect humans? Do they attack people and cattle?


Yelena Salmanova: Leopards do not attack people. The Far Eastern leopard is the most peaceful leopard subspecies. There is no record of a Far Eastern leopard ever attacking a human. Maybe that’s what has brought it to the point of near-extinction. Even humans attack sometimes. The leopard tries to defend itself, it roars, tries to scare away an attacker, but for some reason won’t attack.


Nor does the leopard attack cattle: it has quite enough food in the forest, especially considering the recent measures the park has taken to feed the animals that make up the leopard’s main food sources. For sure, sometimes the leopard can be inquisitive, like any cat. They are especially fond of dogs. Dogs are like a drug to leopards, they like eating dogs. Even so, they don’t go into villages to find dogs to eat: only in the forest, or runaway dogs, or when people come there with dogs. But dogs are prohibited at specially protected territories and forests in general.


A dog can damage the ecosystem. It can kill smaller animals, because a dog is a predator, and dogs also attract predators. Leopards like hunting dogs, which are a delicacy to them.


Some people have the impression that the Far Eastern leopard is a competitor: it hunts deer and roe, and if there were no leopards, people would get more. Some people think so, even though what the leopard kills in a year is nothing compared to what poachers kill. The leopard causes far less damage. It doesn’t kill more than it can eat. In other words, it is not the kind of animal that kills for sport, only to feed itself.


People also dislike leopards because they get more attention than people. It is a rare animal, and money is spent to protect it. Why does the government care more about leopards than people? This is a legitimate problem that we are trying to address. Working with local people has always been a priority.


Other areas of our activity include raising awareness about the Far Eastern leopard, which we do with holidays, PR projects, and festivals. This is an equally important part of what the park does, but at first, there was no way to tie it all together. Today, we try not to single out any one area, and instead try to harmonize and integrate everything. Instead of just talking local people’s ears off trying to explain something, it’s more effective to work with schoolchildren, including through contests that involve both the children and their parents. Maybe some child will read something about the leopard, help name one (our most popular contest), talk about it in the family circle, read about a particular leopard, and learn something not known before, and come to appreciate that amazing animal. The leopard is not an enemy. It needs protection even more than humans do, because animals are like children. If humans are causing them harm, they have no way to defend themselves.


Question: Do locals eventually begin to see the leopard as a special feature of the Far East, and take pride in it?


Yelena Salmanova: Yes, they do. The leopard has already become a symbol, a source of pride. Many people had no idea there were leopards in Russia: not just Russian people living far from the Far East, but people living in the Far East, a half-hour drive from the national park. They thought that leopards only live in Africa. When they learned that the animal lives nearby, they began to take pride in the fact that an animal like that lives in the same neighbourhood.


Question: What is the park’s financial situation? Do you get to invest anything in its development?


Yelena Salmanova: Initially, during the two years when the territory had to be created from scratch, like any new organisation, a lot of things needed to be done. During the first two years, all funding went toward getting things up and running and buying vehicles. Most of the park’s vehicles were purchased with funds from the autonomous non-commercial organisation Dalnevostochnye Leopardy (Far Eastern leopards). Also, buildings had to be renovated, because all the structures in the Kedrovaya Pad nature reserve, which existed before the park, were a shambles. Gear for personnel, and basic office equipment, including new computers and printers, were purchased. These might seem like small things, but it is impossible to work without them.


Question: It’s also impossible to monitor the animal without special tracking equipment?


Yelena Salmanova: That’s right. The most important thing, as far as monitoring is concerned, is that we bought trail cameras, which are the main tool for studying the Far Eastern leopard. There are about 300 cameras in the park today, which were purchased with money from the Dalnevostochnye Leopardy. In other words, we have covered the entire protected territory, and even a little beyond it. Now we have information about all of the cats – maybe not 100 percent of them, because cats are cunning creatures, but 98-99 percent. This is probably the most important step.


All of our events and festivals are also supported by Dalnevostochnye Leopardy, because they are rather expensive. Right now, four national park employees are attending the Russian Geographical Society Festival only thanks to this organisation’s support.


Question: You have mentioned large-scale events and activities. Which of them have been the most successful over these two years?


Yelena Salmanova: Again, I would like to mention the Name the Leopard contest. It was launched last year, when we discovered a male with white paws in our park. Many leopards have white on their paws, but this one has real socks.


Question: Is he the one who was named Lord?


Yelena Salmanova: Yes, Lord. This must be why he was given the name. We received over 1,000 suggestions. I should add that those were only the suggestions that arrived on time, because there was a deadline, with many entries coming afterwards. Plus many people simply wrote letters thanking us for telling them that they have such a leopard. The contest had a very broad geographical range: people from the Far East accounted for only 20 percent of submissions, with the other 80 percent coming from all over Russia.


Question: Did any suggestions come from abroad?


Yelena Salmanova: There were letters from abroad, including from outraged writers asking why it’s a Russian contest. Those suggestions were excluded from consideration, because the contest was originally planned for the Primorye Territory.


Question: In other words, the contest was advertised as a local event?


Yelena Salmanova: Yes, a local event, but literally a month later, suggestions started coming in from other regions, and after we organised a high-profile media campaign, they came in droves, and we realised that the geographical scope should be expanded, and that we were wrong to put limits on it.


We are continuing the contest for other leopards, but it won’t be a panel choosing a name from suggestions submitted by people. We have updated the contest a bit and changed its name to Leopard Keeper. There will be several unnamed leopards, and we are changing the rules a bit. Now, instead of submitting name suggestions, people tell us what they can do for a particular leopard. Then we assess their contribution, see what people will really be able to do for the preservation of the Far Eastern leopard, and then give them an opportunity to name a leopard. The suspense will last until the very last moment: what names will be chosen? That is to say, we won’t choose a name, but rather a guardian.


Question: What are the criteria for selecting the winner?


Yelena Salmanova: We are still just gathering entries. Naturally, we have considered various options. Of course, it is impossible to compare a proposal from a five-year old boy (“I’ll plant a cedar tree for the leopard”) and one, say, from a very rich man (“I’ll donate three billion roubles”). I believe that such questions will come up. In terms of the size of the contribution, three billion roubles would naturally win out, but we realize that this money is probably not such a big loss to the man, while it is a heroic deed for this boy to plant a tree. In other words, we will try to evaluate a person’s individual contribution to this cause.


Needless to say, I believe there will be plenty of difficulties, because the proposals are so different, but in any event, this will not be done by our employees: we will invite representatives from outside organisations. We also planned to invite the winners of the Name the Leopard contest so that winners are selected by a qualified jury.


Question: What are your plans through the end of this year? Do you have a special holiday programme for the New Year?


Yelena Salmanova: Sure, in December and early January, we will sum up the results of the Leopard Keeper contest, and host New Year’s shows, primarily for schoolchildren. We are planning to visit a number of orphanages in Vladivostok and hold matinees for children. We have prepared quizes, games and some shows about the Far Eastern leopard among other things. We are trying to get everyone on board in the effort to preserve the Far Eastern leopard, but at the same time give attention not only to animals but also to children who have been denied it. Last year, we held one such event, but unfortunately, only for one orphanage and for a limited group of children, but they were happy and their teachers say they are looking forward to seeing us again, and they like leopards very much. We want to expand the scope of these events.


Part two of the interview with Yelena Salmanova: Contacts with international scientists, tourism in the national park and photographing Far Eastern leopards.