Yelena Salmanova: Far Eastern leopard research is based on international experience

Yelena Salmanova: Far Eastern leopard research is based on international experience

11 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 for, discussed collaboration with foreign scientists, tourism at the park, and capturing images of the Far Eastern leopard.

Question: In your previous interview, you said that not even all Far East residents are aware that leopards live here. Press releases from the international conferences in China and Bangalore also suggested that even your colleagues in the scientific community don’t always know that we have a specially protected area in the Far East, and that these wild cats live there, too. What is their reaction?


Yelena Salmanova: Many of them are really stunned. When I start telling people, especially abroad, about my leopard research, they ask: Do you live in Africa or in India? I say, no, I come from Russia, and we have leopards living in the Far East. Everyone thinks that the leopard is a tropical animal that only lives in warm countries. This really comes as a shock to many people. This starts you thinking: If the scientific community is not aware of this, what about average people who have nothing to do with science?


Question: Do your foreign colleagues borrow from your experience? Is there an exchange of knowledge and ideas?


Yelena Salmanova: Of course, all our research activity on the Far Eastern leopard is based on international experience, since there is a lot of expertise in the conservation of large mammals out there. A lot of programmes have been implemented in a large number of countries. We study materials, read recent publications, and communicate with feline specialists throughout the world. We seek their advice, when necessary. We also work on an international level.


Question: When the park was being set up, was there a similar park abroad that was taken as an example, as a model?


Yelena Salmanova: No, it was not based on anything, because a country’s climate and specifics matter a great deal. Naturally, Leopard Land National Park was established to ultimately become not just a protected territory, but a real national park on an international level. What does that mean? Unlike a nature reserve, tourism is a focus at national parks. People can visit the park. It’s open. But it’s educational tourism. That is to say, people visit and learn about the park and about the animals there, primarily the leopard.


We are currently working to promote tourism programmes. We already have several tourist trails where people can come and see the signs of the leopard’s presence with their own eyes, see pictures from camera traps, get a picture of themselves in front of a certain tree, or find out that a leopard was at a particular spot two days ago. This resonates with people. They really enjoy it. But we didn’t use any national parks as a model. The experience we draw on is more broadly based. We compare territories, their climates and wildlife, and we try to take all of it into account here.


Question: How do you bring in tourists? Do you post information on the Internet or work with local folks?


Yelena Salmanova: We work with locals and use the Internet. We post information on our website, and we also cooperate with tourist firms. We have only two trails. We are perfectly aware of the impact tourists have on the environment, above all, the soil and vegetation. When it comes to developing tourism in a protected wildlife area, the authorities must always consider what the area can handle – how many people it can receive per day, week or month without detriment to the environment and how much time the land needs to recuperate. We are yet to calculate these coefficients, the work hasn’t been completed. So in the meantime, we try to minimise tourist numbers by allowing them in only on weekends or, if possible, in the middle of the week. We don’t advertise. And yet there are already too many tourists, more than our guides can handle, so we often have to refuse. In a year or two, we are planning to open more trails. This will allow us to distribute the load more rationally so that people could come not once but several times, learn new things and see different places. We are working on this. It’s a very painstaking and lengthy process. It might seem like there’s nothing easier than creating a trail, but every step must be carefully thought-out: what the guides should say or show. All our tours are connected with the leopard. We take people to the leopard’s habitats and give a hundred-percent guarantee that you will at least see a leopard’s footprints.


Question: Is it possible to catch a glimpse of the animal itself?


Yelena Salmanova: To be honest, the chances are very slim. The Far Eastern leopard is the most secretive of the wild cats and one of the most secretive animals in the world. You’re unlikely to encounter a leopard even if you are alone. And if there is a crowd of people, it’s next to impossible. But you never know.


Question: Has it ever happened to a tourist?


Yelena Salmanova: No, not to a tourist, not yet. It did happen, though, with some groups of scientists – because the wind was blowing in a particular direction, the leopard simply didn’t hear the approaching cars. Once, a group of Chinese researchers came to share experience. Literally on the first day of their visit we took them on a ride to show them the habitats and all of a sudden we spotted a leopard standing on a cliff in all its glory. No one had expected that.


Question: What was your reaction?


Yelena Salmanova: We were thrilled! Most of them scrambled to get out their cameras – what a mistake! They missed the wonderful opportunity to just marvel at it. But we saw one, even though our chances had been next to zero.


Question: Besides tourism, do you have any other ideas about how to get information out? For instance, you could use social networks (you already have pages) or, as in zoos, install cameras to let people watch the animals online?


Yelena Salmanova: We’ve thought about cameras. But it’s essentially impossible to set up 24/7 live-streaming, because the animals are constantly roaming. Each leopard has its own territory and they regularly walk the borders. We could put cameras in places where male leopards make markings. But again, the animal only visits them from time to time and we can’t predict when it will appear there again.


We are considering an option involving bait. We have shelters for taking pictures of leopards where there is always bait, but the leopards visit these places for about a week or two out of the month, and for the rest of the time it’s empty or other leopards come up to it, sniff around, and then leave. We can’t guarantee that they will stay there.


A national park is not a zoo or a cage. The animals are roaming free. And they are not the type of animals who depend on food so bait wouldn’t help. Leopards, especially males, need to walk their territory.


We regularly use social networks to share information about the park, trail camera pictures, and all the latest news. We are planning to launch an Instagram account to post more photos; we already have tens of thousands of them, I think.


Question: I would imagine these pictures are the most popular.


Yelena Salmanova: Of course. And we post good quality photos. For instance, we’ve opened a new section of wallpapers where we upload professional-grade photos of Far Eastern leopards. Plans also call for launching mobile apps with leopard pictures and videos. Photos can be used as phone wallpaper or just viewed.


Question: Here, at the festival, right at entrance to the Central House of Artists in fact, there is an entire photo gallery of leopards: professional photos, not ones taken from camera traps. How are such photos taken?


Yelena Salmanova: They’re taken at the shelter where the bait is laid. A photographer needs patience. He won’t leave the shelter for days on end. The longer he sits there, the more chances he has of seeing a leopard. Sometimes a leopard comes on the first day, if he is lucky, but sometimes a photographer can spend 20 days without a sighting. You have to be patient and silent. Imagine, sitting there on your own, or even with somebody else, no talking or smoking in order not to scare away a leopard. It’s really very difficult.


The film produced by the VGTRK All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, Battle for the Taiga Throne, tells about the work of photographer Vasily Solkin, who was one of the first to start making photos and videos of Far Eastern leopards in the taiga, in the wild, who built his own photo shelter, and sat there in winter and summer. This is very difficult. It requires enormous effort. You really have to be obsessed with capturing that rare shot. The Far Eastern leopard is perhaps one of the most difficult animals to photograph. However, if it comes up to the bait, it shows no fear of the humans. The leopard is aware that a man is sitting there, because its sense of smell is immeasurably stronger than ours. Of course, they understand what’s happening and they are on alert, but still, they like posing.


Question: As a result, we get unique, valuable photos  at exhibitions.


Yelena Salmanova: That's right. For example, this year, Nikolai Zinovyev and Gennady Yusin won two or three awards for their leopard photos.


Question: I have also seen calendars with children’s drawings of leopards. How did this idea come about? Did you receive a lot of drawings and just decide to use them in a calendar?


Yelena Salmanova: As a matter of fact, the idea was born many years ago, and these calendars with children’s drawings were originally made by the Phoenix Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and several environmental NGOs. The project is probably 10 years old. As its organisers said, during the first year, only around 20 drawings were submitted in the contest. In other words, almost all of them made it into the calendar. However, with each passing year, the number kept growing. Within just two years, the news of the contest had spread. Plus, people saw the results of their work. The calendars were actually published and distributed. There were separate competitions for small children and teenagers, naturally, and now we get thousands of drawings. It’s very difficult, almost impossible to choose between the children’s drawings. We wish we could publish them all.


Question: Do you plan to create a gallery on your website to post all the drawings there?


Yelena Salmanova: That question did come up, but it is technically very difficult to post 1,000 drawings, even 100 drawings, because that would take up too much space on the site. We are considering the possibility of publishing several calendars a year, maybe holding an exhibition, because we don’t throw away the drawings that didn’t make it into a calendar. We really want them to be used in some way or other, so that as many people as possible could see them. So, if you have any ideas, I’m all ears!


Question: OK, I’ll keep that in mind. And now one final question. A monument to the Amur tiger was recently built. Are there any plans to build a leopard monument?


Yelena Salmanova: As a matter of fact, we hadn’t considered that. The Amur tiger has always been hyped more, while the leopard has for many years been in the tiger’s shadow (that may have been one of the challenges of leopard conservation efforts: it was simply forgotten against the backdrop of a bigger predator). But in any case, experience shows that direct contact with people, their involvement in the process, and organising contests has an enormous effect, and people really grow to respect and love leopards.


We try to prioritise direct communication with people. Of course, a monument is a good thing, it attracts attention, but we believe in holding festivals and various events so that people can hear more and become more involved in the process, not just admire the leopard from a distance. Although perhaps someday a monument will also be built.