Sergei Istomov: Snow leopard habitat areas must be streamlined

Sergei Istomov: Snow leopard habitat areas must be streamlined

15 August 2013

Sergei Istomov is a senior researcher at the Sayano-Shushensky State Nature Biosphere Reserve where he has been working since 1997. He studies rare wild cat species, such as snow leopard, manul and lynx. The study of wild cats moved to a whole new level under his leadership when researchers began using state-of-the-art equipment and technology. In January 2008, Mr Istomov set a camera trap in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve, and a few days later ​​they received the first-ever picture of a snow leopard in Russia. He is a leading expert on the snow leopard in Russia.


During the Rare and Endangered Species of Large Mammals: A Strategy for Research and Protection all-Russian science convention held in Khakassia on July 30-August 2, 2013, Mr Istomov focused on the study of this endangered species in Russia.


Question: You study the snow leopard. What are the most stunning recent discoveries that you made?


Sergei Istomov: Myths! The myths about this animal that must be debunked. Most importantly, snow leopards are very sociable. They communicate a lot between themselves and even get together during certain periods of time. It's very exciting to watch photo recorder footage where four of them sit together as if they are discussing something. They get together for reasons unknown to us. We can only guess.


Question: Do you think snow leopards communicate with the rest of the wildlife community?


Sergei Istomov: Of course, they do. Besides, they know their enemies very well.


Question: Who’s their main enemy?


Sergei Istomov: The wolf. A lone wolf can’t do much harm to a snow leopard, but a pack of hungry wolves could be a threat, especially to a cub. We saw that from tracking them and witnessed such confrontations. It never went as far as actual fights, but wolves are a nuisance for snow leopards.


Question: What do snow leopards do in such cases? Leave?

Sergei Istomov: It’s a cat. Unlike dogs, cats can’t take pain. Cats hate pain. Even when a snow leopard is caught in a poacher’s trap, it never tries to get out. Or, take the lynx, for example. I've seen a mother with two cubs caught in a trap that was put up for musk deer by poachers. They froze in it to death. They almost never try to break free because they are cats, and cats hate suffering or doing extra work.

It’s a myth that snow leopards travel a lot. They are conservative to the point where they use only trodden paths. These paths are so well trodden that they can travel along them without much effort, let alone injury. They just get up and do their thing. They have everything planned out, you see?


Question: What do they do during the day?


Sergei Istomov: They sleep. At times, they may stay in one place for almost five days. As long as they’re full, they can lie in one place forever and feel good about it. They don’t eat much. If it’s not disturbed by anyone, a goat can be enough food for a snow leopard for a week. It can eat up to three kilogrammes of meat at a time. First, it can’t chew on bones, since its jaw and teeth are shaped differently than those of a wolf or a wolverine. Second, it loves tender meat. It will eat meat clean off the bone. It’s a cat. They are so neat that when we caught them on several occasions, we were surprised at how clean they were. They never smell like anything. They are clean to the point that they never have any parasites or infections.


Question: What kind of lifestyle do snow leopards lead? What is their daily routine?


Sergei Istomov: It’s mostly a nocturnal animal. We’ve analysed the times of the day when we had it captured on film and found out that out of several thousand pictures only five were made between 12 pm and 2 pm. Its activity peaks in the pre-dawn hours between 4 am and 6 am and then at sunset around 7 pm. It becomes active by night time, comes out and stays active until about midnight or 1 am. It’s active at night as well, but not as much. It is most active in the pre-dawn and pre-sunset hours, during twilight, so to speak.


Question: How do snow leopards hunt?


Sergei Istomov: Snow leopards don’t stalk or chase their prey. They ambush it. That’s how they hunt most of the time. A leopard positions itself on a high ground and jumps down on its prey. Its pounce is long and powerful. Then, it tries to bite through the animal's neck. It jumps from above and hits heavily with its huge powerful paws. Thus, its basic hunting method is a powerful paw swipe and a bite through the neck. The leopard kills its prey swiftly, and if everything goes well, the latter will never know what hit it.


If the leopard missed or made a bad pounce, it can chase prey for 100-150 metres at the most. It then turns around and walks away. It never chases its prey until it catches it. It never exhausts itself because it knows that it can find another prey a kilometre or two away from that place. All the more so, since it’s familiar with the area and the times where it can ambush another prey. So, it just walks around and looks for the next opportunity.


We’ve seen that during the winter tracking when a snow leopard closed in with a herd of goats, got ready to pounce, but then turned around and walked away. It acts like a shepherd who knows where his herd grazes. In due time, it will be back and take what is his.


Question: Do you feed snow leopards in the reserve?


Sergei Istomov: No, we don’t do this kind of thing. Even if we did, the snow leopard, unlike a leopard or a tiger, will not fall for the bait; it's just not that kind of animal. Their biological makeup and behaviour are different. We never tried to offer it any food, and we’ve never seen it feed on carrion or the remains of a carcass killed by another predator.


Question: How well do you think you know the snow leopard?


Sergei Istomov: It’s impossible to know it well. How can we know everything about it? We have learned a few things about it with the help of innovative technical equipment, such as satellite tracking, camera traps and genetic analyses, but there’s no way to figure it out. I can tell you that much.


Question: What are the next steps of your research? What are your goals?


Sergei Istomov: Our main goal is to streamline the snow leopard habitat areas.

We now have a better picture of the snow leopard habitat, and we must streamline these areas by adding more territories to it. We must do this. In the longer term, we plan to build snow leopard nurseries.

What we can do now realistically – even in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve – is to streamline the area. We can do that. We are aware of the snow leopard habitat where it’s occasionally poached now. If we make this area part of the reserve and make it a protected area, then we’ll have two to five snow leopards that will reside in this territory and be protected.

Our snow leopards are unique in that they are the northernmost snow leopards. They do not occur further north because the natural and climatic conditions there are not good for these animals.


Question: Did you have any encounters with snow leopards that you’d like to share? Do you remember the first time you saw one?


Sergei Istomov: The first time that we got it on camera, we broke into a dance! We were overjoyed, since we were the first ones in Russia to do so. We had a limited number of camera traps, so we couldn’t set them by hundreds. We had a total of 14 cameras, and, of course, we wanted to place them in the right spots. And we got lucky! When we started this research, we had no idea that we would have access to such technology some day. However, today we engage in serious research, and even started using drones in our studies of the snow leopard.