Vyacheslav Rozhnov: Populations of rare animals must be restored only in their historical habitats

Vyacheslav Rozhnov: Populations of rare animals must be restored only in their historical habitats

6 September 2013

Vyacheslav Rozhnov, associate member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Deputy Director of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences,  zoologist, Doctor of Biology, expert in animal ecology, head of the laboratory of behaviour and behavioural ecology of mammals.


Question: At what stage is the snow leopard research programme, as part of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ permanent expedition?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: We regularly organise expeditions to the areas inhabited by the snow leopard in Russia. For example, our colleague Alexander Karnaukhov has recently returned from such a research trip, and will go on another expedition in a week or two. We are also continuing molecular, genetic, hormone and other research in our laboratories.


Question: Where exactly are you studying snow leopards?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: In fact, we are conducting research across the entire habitat range of the snow leopard in Russia. Research is currently underway in the Altai Region and Tuva. I must say, for all species with which we work, we study them in the entire habitat range, but sometimes we work locally, in one spot. In this respect, it is very important to cooperate with nature reserves, though I think that the system of interaction with nature reserves inhabited by rare species should be improved. Of course, they should conduct research, but this activity should be part of the general programme which the permanent expedition is in charge of. I think nature reserves should receive money for infrastructure development, inspectors’ activity, and equipment: that is, for creation of conditions to preserve the species. With the money allocated for research, we could involve employees of nature reserves in our work there during the expeditions.


When working in nature reserves, we always appeal to local staff to take part in our research, and, as a rule, this cooperation is very productive. By the way, I'm talking about the employees of local institutes and other local organisations as well, and we issue joint publications together. We don’t encroach on the materials, because we prepared them together. This is our fundamental position.


The programme has seen development at the Sayano-Shushensky and Khakassky nature reserves. Materials received there are a result of our joint activity with Sergei Istomov, an employee of the reserve. He is a great expert and is vastly knowledgeable about the snow leopard.


As for expeditions, snow leopards do not only live in nature reserves. But their numbers are scarce, and it is not known where and how wide their habitat is. One of the main issues now is to learn where the snow leopard lives, so our employees are working in the entire habitat range.


Question: The second issue concerns the snow leopard’s migration routes, correct?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: Right, but before studying migration routes, we need to examine point A first to see if snow leopards live there, and then point B, and then see if snow leopards use these migration routes connecting the two points.


I repeat: one of our main objectives is to study the habitat of the snow leopard in Russia. We more or less know about the population in the Altai and Sayany region – in Tuva, in the south of the Krasnoyarsk Territory and in Khakassia – but we are unaware of its habitat in other places. The employee I mentioned, Alexander Karnaukhov, is going to Altai and then to the Tunka Range (a mountain range in Buryatia’s Okinsky and Tunkinsky districts), to learn if the snow leopard lives there and how widespread it is.


We have created a special database based on GIS (geographic information system for capturing, storing, analysing and presenting graphic data), where we record all our encounters with the snow leopard, data from scientific literature and messages from our colleagues to find places the snow leopard could inhabit. The programme we are using now is ideal for research planning: it allows us to find places where a snow leopard could live, then we can go there and check it out. If the site is suitable for snow leopards, but they don’t live there, we should think about how to restore the population, but we must first determine whether they had lived there before. This is our fundamental position, that the population must only be restored in its historic habitat. For instance, it makes no sense to create a tiger population in the Moscow Region, it would be foolish. Our task is to restore the population in the animal's natural habitat in the Khabarovsk Territory, the Amur Region, the Jewish Autonomous Region and the Primorye Territory.


Question: How is it possible to restore the population? By releasing young cubs?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: This is one method, yes.


Question: Won’t they leave the area?  


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: It depends on what has already been done there. Before releasing cubs, we need to make sure they have enough to eat. If the area lacks food, we need to restore the reserve. What does it mean to restore the food supply for a predator? It means its prey needs to have something to eat as well, therefore, certain measures should be taken to that end. When the area is ready, then cubs can be released. We also need to calculate how many predators can live there, because you can't release 100 tigers in a place that can only support three. It's the same with snow leopards and Far Eastern leopards.


Question: What equipment is the most effective in snow leopard research: trail cameras or UAVs, which scientists have received recently?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: The amount of effective equipment has been growing. It includes trail cameras, satellite collars and drones. But a drone is only useful when other equipment is attached to it, like cameras, video cameras and infrared cameras. The drone must carry all this, which small are unable to do, in addition to having a short range.

In this respect, we wanted to ask Mr Putin and Mr Shoigu, as Defence Minister, to conduct exercises. It’s no secret that the army has long used UAVs, and the best ones are used in Israel. I know that our army is also improving its infrastructure and purchases quality unmanned aerial vehicles. One needs to know how to use them, so regular exercises are needed. We want to ask Mr Shoigu (and have already sent him a message) to conduct training for the troops, for example, in the Primorye Territory, with the use of the military UAVs, good ones, with good equipment. We also use cameras and infrared cameras, but it’s no secret that military equipment is more advanced, and our objective is to use this technology to benefit nature. We want to try to conduct this kind of observation…To make the troops shoot images in some part of the Primorye Territory or the Khabarovsk Territory, in the habitat of the Amur tiger. Meanwhile, we would conduct research on the ground and then develop a method for calculating tiger numbers with the use of drones. I don’t know if such a thing is possible, but we should try discussing it, I think.


Question: In late July, Vladimir Putin visited the Sayano-Shushensky nature reserve and said that it would be good to establish a snow leopard re-introduction centre there. Do you think this could be an effective measure to preserve the snow leopard population?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: This has long been discussed. We talked about the centre when Mr Putin came there for the first time and put a satellite collar on Mongol the snow leopard. Re-introduction centres must be located in the animal’s habitat. In my opinion, it would be wrong to build such a centre in Moscow and then release leopards in the Sayano-Shushensky nature reserve. The centre should be built either in Khakassia, or in the Sayano-Shushensky reserve, or in the Pozarym reserve. We are ready to take part, because the work we are conducting to rehabilitate tigers can be used in rehabilitating other big cats, the Far Eastern leopard and snow leopard, because the two systems are similar.