The word used in Russian for snow leopard, irbis, entered the language in the 17th century through Russian fur traders, who first learnt it from Turkic hunters. The word is of Mongolian origin and is said to mean “snow cat”. The name reflects the snow leopard’s natural habitat among the wind-swept and snow-capped mountains of Asia, up to 4,500 metres above sea level. The habitat range of the animal spans across parts of 13 countries – Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Human attitudes to the snow leopard have evolved over time. In the Russian Empire, the animal was ruthlessly hunted for its fur. But this began to change in the 1950s. When the Red Book of the USSR, founded in 1974, saw its first edition published in 1978, the snow leopard was classified as 3rd-category, meaning a rare species with a limited habitat. It retained this classification in the second edition in 1984, even though the IUCN placed the animal on its Red List of Threatened Species as “endangered”, which is a higher threat category. However, in the 2001 release of the Red Book of Russia (Animals), the species was uplisted to the 1st category, which means it faces a risk of extinction. In the current IUCN Red List, the animal is still classified as “endangered” under C1, and is also included on CITES Appendix I.
Protected natural territories, on both the national and regional level, have been considered the most effective way to protect wildlife in Russia since the Soviet era. In the Altai and Sayan mountains, protected territories make up more than a half of the entire area. However, only 6% of the suitable habitat for snow leopards is protected in Russia.
Russia is the northernmost country where the species is found, with a majority of Russian snow leopards living in the Altai and Sayan mountains, which account for just 2-3% of the species’ total habitat in the world. The snow leopard population in Russia is declining as its habitat becomes smaller and more fragmented. Therefore, measures must be taken to protect the animal both in protected areas and in ecosystems shared with humans.
The most densely populated protected snow leopard habitat in Russia is currently the Sayano-Shushensky State Nature Reserve, where the density is about 0.1 per 1,000 hectares. The animals mainly live in the rocky foothills and middle reaches of the mountains in the Yenisei River valley, and occasionally roam the higher altitudes.
Due to the snow leopard’s remote habitat and sparse population, there has been limited research into critical aspects of the animal’s life and behaviour, such as the structure of its habitat, seasonal migrations, diet, hunting habits, population size and structure, the size of individual territories, and daily movement. Studies of snow leopards in the wild rarely include direct observations. Most information is inferred from tracks. The lack of data on important aspects of the snow leopard’s life and behaviour make it difficult to adequately protect its habitat in Russia.
“By gathering reliable data, which is itself extremely valuable, we hope to achieve our ultimate goal of protecting this unique species,” says Vyacheslav Rozhnov, deputy director of the Severtsov Institute.