Science unveils snow leopard’s secrets

Science unveils snow leopard’s secrets

2 December 2011

On November 30 RIA Novosti hosted a news conference on the Russian Geography Society expedition Tracking the Snow Leopard. Scientists reported on the leopard habitat, the life of leopards whose shots were previously made by photo traps, etc, and explained the necessity of studying this rare feline species.


Those in attendance at the conference were: Irina Sannikova, director of the Strana Zapovednaya national environmental foundation and deputy director of the Khakassky State Nature Reserve; Gennady Kiselev, director of the Sayano-Shushensky State Nature Reserve; Viktor Nepomnyashchy, acting director of the Khakassky State Nature Reserve; and Sergei Istomov, staff researcher of the Sayano-Shushensky State Nature Reserve.


According to these experts, there are no universally established methods of assessing the snow leopard population. Moreover, the only available information has been obtained mostly from peripheral evidence, as it is extremely hard to observe these cautious beasts. Therefore, zoologists usually make do with recording their paw prints, droppings, etc.


Researchers taking part in the Russian Geography Society project "Tracking the Snow Leopard" described their own methodology, which is elaborated on the basis of all previous studies.


"To begin with, the term 'snow leopard' is rather imprecise. It is a calque from the old Turkic word irbis, 'snow cat', but the term 'rock leopard' would be more appropriate. In fact, snow leopards detest snow and feel stranded when it is more than 30 centimetres deep. They live high in the mountains, where other animals do not dare to climb, so we cannot assess their population precisely even with 21st century gadgetry," said Sergei Istomov, known for intuition in choosing the spots for photo traps. A majority of good shots come from the cameras he planted.


"Whatever assessments of the leopard population remaining in the world are approximate. We don't know exactly how many leopards there are. It was assumed till quite recently that there are 40-120 snow leopards in Russia. Our estimates are more precise – and far more pessimistic. There are only nine permanently settled in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve, plus another six coming through from time to time. Our leopards brought up six cubs over the past three years. They lived with their mothers until the age of 18 months and then went away. Regrettably, we have lost track of them," Istomov added.


The experts' main task is to map and protect snow leopard migration routes, on which the beasts encounter their greatest dangers. Though their overall world habitat approaches 3 million sq km, the places which leopards inhabit are tiny spots scattered over great distances. That is why all-around studies involving a vast expanse of territory are crucial, he said.


"It is very hard to organise an expedition for snow leopard observation," said Gennady Kiselev, one of Siberia's most experienced and respected nature reserve managers. "Such expeditions had not brought tangible results until 2005-2006. The leopards were first captured on film in 2008, after we obtained cameras for photo traps. The first stage of the "Tracking the Snow Leopard" expedition started last December. Mr Putin said kind words to the crew on their departure. We upgraded the job as the Sayano-Shushensky, Khakassky and Ubsunur Hollow reserves pooled their efforts then with the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences. We got a major incentive last April – a Russian Geography Society grant to the Khakassky State Nature Reserve."


"Snow leopard studies are arranged in several stages," Istomov said. The first is field work to collect samples of fur, claw scratches, feces and urine for genetic testing, after which the leopard population is assessed by trailing – a long-established method. We measure up all the footprints we come across and put the information into our database. Its analysis allows experts to guess the approximate number of leopards in a given area. There is a water reservoir near our reserve, which increases soil humidity. So we don't limit footprint studies to snowy winters – there's enough mud in spring to obtain fine prints."


The third stage requires automated cameras known as photo traps. It is very hard to plant them, but it is the most precise observation method. First of all, spots must be found where leopards are sure to appear. These are mostly boulders and trees the leopards use to mark their hunting grounds with urine. Second, the traps need constant supervision and regular changes of batteries and memory sticks. Then the leopards are identified according to colour and spots, after which a file is made for each with hand drawings of their spot shapes, tentative age, gender, etc.


"We launched the fourth stage just this year with Russian Geography Society support – they were able to supply satellite tracking collars. The first leopard was collared in Russia last March. During the fifth stage we'll analyse all stored information and specify threats to the species," Istomov said.


"A collar costs $4,000-5,000, not including huge customs clearance costs," said Severtsov Institute deputy director Vyacheslav Rozhnov. "We have problems with foreign collars – they cannot withstand Russian frosts, which occasionally reach 40 degrees centigrade. That is why we are designing gadgetry that can handle such an extreme environment. Russian testers make recommendations to manufacturers for adjustment."


"The Pozarym reserve was established on our initiative for a more effective protection of snow leopards and other rare and endangered species – the Siberian ibex, forest reindeer, and argali goat. That will be South Siberia's first federal nature reserve. Importantly, the specially protected natural sites of the Altai, Tuva and Khakassia republics and the Krasnoyarsk Territory's south can be united in one protective network now," Viktor Nepomnyashchy said.


Rozhnov had the following to say as he closed out the conference: "So, what's the big deal about snow leopards anyways, you might ask? Well, we all enjoy drinking pure water and filling our lungs with fresh air – but we take Nature's bounty for granted and forget the fact that the loss of endangered animals can have an effect on the ecosystem as a whole. So in order to preserve rare animals, we have an obligation to study them."