Viktor Lukarevsky: Wild animals should not hear gunshots

Viktor Lukarevsky: Wild animals should not hear gunshots

6 July 2015

Dr Viktor Lukarevsky, a biologist and senior researcher at the Sayano-Shushensky Nature Reserve, discusses the state of snow leopard research, the importance of reaching kids at a young age, and the scourge of poaching.


Question: What are you working on now?


Viktor Lukarevsky: At present, we are discussing problems that exist in our nature reserves, problems related to wild cat conservation and how to tackle them. This concerns both the Persian leopard, and the snow leopard… My past experience and my analysis of the current situation in different snow leopard habitats allow me to make certain conclusions, which I share with people who can use their influence to help protect the snow leopard population. We conducted an interesting expedition on the orders of our reserve’s director to assess the prospects for the snow leopard’s distribution and potential habitats inside and outside Sayano-Shushensky, to see if the protection system in place is effective and what can be done to improve it. After the expedition, the director gathered us for a meeting, during which we discussed all those problems.


Question: What’s the situation like with poaching inside the reserve and in the adjacent areas?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Fortunately, poaching along the riverside has been done away with, but this is a vast reserve and, unfortunately, we don’t have enough funds to guarantee the same for the entire reserve and across the region. In order to preserve the snow leopard, we must provide protection not just inside the reserve but also at a regional level. But that requires a different level of funding, and a different kind of effort is needed to preserve the area’s full diversity. The first sign that tells me if there is protection or not is how animals react to the presence of humans, how close I can approach them. Where proper protection is in place, I can get literally within arm’s reach of the animals, which means that they haven’t heard gunshots for at least several years. Unfortunately, putting in place the necessary measures so that no gunshots disturb the animals throughout the reserve and in the adjacent areas will require significantly more funds.


Question: Last year one of your snow leopards, Ichthyander, often swam across the river and back, and everyone was worried that poachers might catch him. Luckily, nothing bad happened. How do snow leopards feel in Sayano-Shushensky now? 


Viktor Lukarevsky: He lives on both banks, which is normal. We regularly record his presence on both sides. That he is capable of long-distance swimming – several hundred metres – is really something. That’s an interesting biological fact. But there is more to it: no newcomers have been spotted around for two years. That’s what worries me most. In other words, it means that habitats from which other cats could come either don’t exist anymore or have been heavily depleted. That’s very alarming. Everything seems to be fine, but if we analyse the quality of what we have, we’ll see that we are losing snow leopards.


At present, snow leopards live only in areas bordering on Mongolia with few exceptions. We have spotted just one reproducing female in years. Other groups have one female at most and those are cross-border females. So, the majority of the snow leopard groups in Russia have survived only because there are snow leopards on the other side of the border, in Mongolia. The situation calls for urgent measures: there must be at least two or three females in each snow leopard group. Normally, a group should have from five to ten females. 


Question: Are there females among the three cubs who currently live in the reserve?


Viktor Lukarevsky: We can’t say for sure. Their behaviour hasn’t given us any clues as to their sex. It’s hard to identify, because the images from camera traps are of poor quality, most of them taken during dark hours. As yet, we don’t have enough photo data to determine the cubs’ sex. Another problem is that there are three adult cats in the reserve, who are presumably a father, a son and a daughter. So far, we have failed to obtain samples from the cubs for a DNA test in order to identify their father.


Question: The reserve recently held a contest called My Snow Leopard-2015. What do you think needs to be done to get more people involved in studying the snow leopard? Should people be engaged at an early age and how?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Definitely. That provides the foundation. Until recently, only two things have saved the snow leopard: myths and legends about their sacredness and their hard-to-reach habitats. Sadly, snow leopards had been almost completely wiped out by the late 1990s. There can be no doubt as to whether contests and similar actions should be held. They are necessary. The problem is that these measures alone won’t bring results. Strict protection must be ensured until those children grow up and become aware. One poacher in a village can destroy everything around him. Another reason why such campaigns are necessary is that today, if, say, a tiger poacher is detained, most people sympathise with him, rather than the tiger. Therefore, the measures we are talking about are necessary, because they change our attitudes and we stop sympathising with poachers.


Question: Why do poachers evoke sympathy?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Sympathy comes in a lot of different forms. People might sympathise with someone because he is rich and has powerful supporters, they might sympathise with someone else because he is a poor shepherd. We need to take the actions I mentioned in order to change the mindset of younger generations so that poachers never evoke sympathy. In fact, I am afraid that by the time our children have grown up, we will have no tigers, or leopards, or snow leopards. That’s why I am saying that more funds must be allocated for protection measures.


Question: Should international projects be organised to save the snow leopard?


Viktor Lukarevsky: In my view, when too many people are involved, more problems emerge. The question I am raising can be resolved in just four to five years – five years will suffice to prepare the required number of animals, release them into the wild and thus virtually restore their population in Russia. But with too many people involved in a project, especially those who are not specialists, or so-called “theoreticians”, its implementation becomes either impossible or too complicated and drawn out. There are too many cooks in the kitchen.