Conservation is the priority – an interview with Irina Sannikova

Conservation is the priority – an interview with Irina Sannikova

5 November 2014

Irina Sannikova, Chair of the Republic of Khakassia Branch of the Russian Geographical Society and Executive Director of the Strana Zapovednaya (Protected Country) National Foundation, discusses efforts to study and preserve snow leopards in Russia.

Question: What are the main activities of your foundation?


Irina Sannikova: We consider nature conservation and educational projects to be the main areas of our work. This year, the Strana Zapovednaya National Foundation marked its 15th anniversary, and we dedicated our anniversary to the Russian Geographical Society Festival. During the festival, we held presentations on the Republic of Khakassia Branch of the Russian Geographical Society, as well as the Khakassky and Sayano-Shushensky nature reserves. Of course, we prioritise work there because snow leopards, a rare and specially protected species, roam the Western Sayan mountain range.


Question: What other animals, apart from the snow leopard, does the foundation protect?


Irina Sannikova: First of all, we protect animals on which the snow leopard feeds, including the ibex and some others. We are not the only ones to focus on the preservation of the ibex and other hoofed animals because the snow leopard would be unable to survive without its primary food source. This is why we must preserve its natural habitat.


Question: What other countries work with Russia to preserve the snow leopard?


Irina Sannikova: All countries inhabited by snow leopards. Our partner, Mongolia, is located nearest to Russian territory. An international snow leopard conservation programme was signed a year ago by representatives of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries.


It should be noted that Russia, particularly its Sayano-Shushensky reserve, is quite unique in that the snow leopard population here lives in the northernmost sector of the global snow leopard habitat. This is the northernmost and most hostile region of their habitat, and we are doing our best to preserve snow leopards here. Snow leopards are the most vulnerable wild cats inhabiting Russia. Compared to the Amur tiger and the Amur leopard, the snow leopard population is quite stable, but we focus on its preservation. Preservation includes protective measures, research projects and environmental-protection and educational activity. We are very happy that the decision was made to hold a Russian Geographical Society Festival, which includes various educational projects. On 3 November, the festival hosted events dedicated to the protection of rare animals, and we discussed our snow leopard conservation programme. A new book of photography called “The Snow Leopard: Russia’s Living Symbol” was presented. On 23 October 2014, Russia marked International Snow Leopard Day for the first time. This, too, is a highly important step to raise public awareness about the snow leopard.


Question: Could you speak a bit about the recent film about the snow leopard? It also premiered at the Russian Geographical Society Festival.


Irina Sannikova: It’s a really wonderful film. And the wonder lies in the fact that it contains footage of the snow leopard, the first ever recorded in our country’s history. The footage was captured by employees of the nature reserve’s research department as part of its environmental education activity. It took us quite a long time to make the film. Prior to that, we had several documentaries about snow leopards. And then we realised that we needed a kind of a populist film that would be interesting and educational to people who do not encounter this on a daily basis and who are not familiar with this part of the natural world, with this topic. This film is not scientific but educational. We answer questions about the snow leopard’s life span, size, tail length, and diet. I think we succeeded, especially considering that we also added some animation and really put our hearts into it.


Question: In May or June of this year, the female snow leopard in the nature reserve gave birth. Is it known who the father is?


Irina Sannikova: Viktor Lukarevsky, a lead researcher at the Sayano-Shushensky Nature Reserve, is currently looking into this matter. So far we do not know who the father of our cubs is. Of course, when the results come in, we will be able to answer this question.


Question: What methods are used to fight poachers today?


Irina Sannikova: The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has developed comprehensive programmes. The Sayano-Shushensky reserve has always had a special protection regime. We regularly find and remove poacher traps. During a recent raid, a poacher was caught who admitted to setting traps. He has been sued for 180,000 roubles. We are working on the periphery of the nature reserve, but we cannot work outside its boundaries. However, the snow leopard knows no boundaries. Of course, these animals intuitively chose Sayano-Shushensky reserve because it is the most peaceful place for them.


Another priority for us is to preserve the snow leopard’s food sources and combat poaching. Poachers hunt and set traps mainly to catch Siberian musk deer, not snow leopards.


Question: Do you use volunteers in the nature reserve?


Irina Sannikova: We are unable to do this for a number of reasons. First, the reserve is not conveniently located. Second, these jobs require professional training. Third, you need to be in shape and have enough stamina, because you have to walk dozens of kilometres with backpacks. At present, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has beefed up the reserve’s protection service, improved its material and technical base, and it is hiring professional personnel.


Of course, we use volunteers in our research, because a great deal of information and data are collected, as well as in our environmental education work.


Question: What are your plans for the future?


Irina Sannikova: At the moment, the main focus is on developing tourism at specially protected territories, as well as on reinforcing protections. We also want to organise media tours to give members of the press a glimpse of the wildlife and pristine environment. Of course, our nature reserve can handle some people, but the snow leopard habitat is definitely not an area for large numbers. To streamline the visiting process, we have developed a number of tourist itineraries around the snow leopard’s territory. You can contact the administration of Sayano-Shushensky reserve, and they will help you plan your visit so as not to disturb the animals while also giving you an opportunity to see these places.


Additionally, we have designed a national field complex in Sayano-Shushensky nature reserve, built a scale model, and now the paperwork is being processed, so construction could begin in the next 12-18 months. We hope to time its opening to coincide with the centennial of our country’s nature reserve system in 2016.