Pursuing the snow leopard

Pursuing the snow leopard

25 October 2011

An expedition started out in the Sayan Mountains not far from the renowned Sotiy pass (100th pass) to study the habitat of the snow leopard – the rarest and most mysterious large cat in the world. Its participants provided new pictures of the snow leopard to the Russian Geographical Society.


The project to study the snow leopard with the Russian Geographical Society's support began in 2010. Using funds from a grant received to implement the project on April 15, 2011, the Khakassky national wildlife preserve surveyed a vast area that serves as the home to the most secretive cat in the world. The preserve employees installed photo-traps and generalised previously gathered information. Based on the newly obtained information, they identified the most likely migration routes used by snow leopards between its major habitat areas in Khakassia, the Krasnoyarsk Territory, Republics of Tuva and Altai.


“One of the mysteries behind the snow leopard is that we have no idea about where it goes or where it comes from,” Sayano-Shushensky preserve senior researcher Sergei Istomov said. “We monitor a female snow leopard that gives birth to three cubs each year – we know this from the photo-traps. The cubs grow up and leave for unknown destinations. Occasionally, photo-traps capture images of new males in this area. We don’t know where they come from either.”


Prior to the photo-traps, which only appeared in the preserve last year, researchers identified snow leopards by their tracks. Certainly, this is not a very accurate technique. Now, researchers know their leopards by sight and can tell how many intruders are present in the preserve at any point in time.


“Istomov shares his trails with leopards. The photo-traps he has placed capture more animals than those placed by other employees,” Irina Sannikova, the head of the Russian Geographical Society's Khakassia branch, says. “However, he has never seen them alive. We have a joke here that our snow leopards have fun watching Sergei’s stealthy tread. They have seen him for sure. There is no doubt about it.”


Before starting out, the expedition's participants spoke about their project goals at a news conference in Abakan. Sannikova noted that expeditions in the high mountain taiga of the Altai-Sayan region are fraught with dangers because there are no roads and communication in the mountains.


“It is very important to be around people who can provide the necessary assistance,” she said.


In order to cover as many snow-leopard-inhabited areas as possible, the expedition started out from two wildlife preserves – Khakassky in Khakassia and Ubsunur Hollow in Tuva. Both groups are expected to study 18 potential snow leopard routes and cover a total of 250 kilometers. Tentatively, the team will reunite near  Pozarym Lake on November 3-5. Researchers use horses as a means of transport because the area is impracticable for vehicles or for helicopter landings.


To evenly spread the cargo, they put all of their belongings in special bags that will be carried by heavyset local horses. Photo-traps are the only equipment that the expedition members will carry themselves.


“These are high-speed digital cameras outfitted with passive infrared sensors. Infrared LEDs are activated in the dark,” Pavel Kulemeyev, a senior researcher at Khakassky, says. “In daylight, the image is colored, with 3.1 MP resolution. In the dark, it is monochrome. The shortest interval between shots is one second. There may be up to 10 shots in one series. Photo-traps can make up to 5,000 shots. They are powered by six batteries. The picture shows the date, time, lunar phase and temperature of the ambient air. The camera is fully weatherproof.” The photo-traps are mounted to urinary marking spots, normally located on trees or rocks.


Shortly before heading out, the participants transferred their new pictures of snow leopards to the Russian Geographical Society.