Snow leopard studies at Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve

Snow leopard studies at Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve

26 August 2015

Data on snow leopards inhabiting the territory of the Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve began to be recorded as soon as the reserve was established in 1976. For many years, the rare animal was studied on the basis of the traces it left, including paw prints on snow and clay, urinary marks on stones and trees, tears on tree trunks, scratches on the ground and mating-game rolling spots. Watching a snow leopard is great luck even for scientists who study the animal and participate in specialised exploratory expeditions. The snow leopard is extremely secretive, while its camouflage colour and soft tread render it invisible even within several metres.


The first photographs of snow leopards inhabiting the reserve were made by trail cameras in 2008. The accumulated data on leopard migration routes enabled the faultless deployment of photographic recorders, one of which took Russia’s first photograph of a snow leopard in the wild on 23 February 2008. The animal’s squint eyes earned him the nickname, Mongol. It was this male that was later caught on two occasions – first to put on him a GPS-ARGOS collar to track his migrations and subsequently to replace the damaged model with a new one.


Since 2010, the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) has provided grant support to the environmental projects that the Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve carries out in cooperation with the Khakassky Reserve. The projects are aimed at studying the snow leopard population, its size and sex and age structure, as well as its key habitats. Among other things, the resultant data helps to optimise the territorial protection of the species in South Siberia. Director of the Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve Gennady Kiselyov says that years of cooperating on joint projects with the Russian Geographical Society have considerably expanded the store of scientific knowledge on the snow leopard’s biology and ecology. The reserve staff have identified snow leopard habitats and accumulated detailed data on each registered animal. Thirteen snow leopards were born and grew up at the Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve, while the project has been implemented. Their passports have been compiled and observation data has been systematised.  Also, the protection and research department’s staff regularly visit the conservation area. The infrastructure is being improved as well. The Irbis multifunction field facility is being built near the reserve’s southern border, where modern working conditions are being created for the protection and research department staff, as well as for receiving knowledge-oriented tourists.


“Each project is a set of measures aimed at maintaining and improving the protection system and continuing the years-old monitoring of the snow leopard species. The more we study them, the better we understand how to preserve the species as a whole. It seems impossible to preserve it at a single reserve. There are numerous factors indicating that environmental measures alone are not enough to save the snow leopard from extinction. Some drastic measures are needed. What measures? It is this question that we are seeking to answer by inviting the most experienced and authoritative specialists to take part in research and discussions in the framework of the projects,” Mr Kiselyov said.


“This year, we have been implementing a project aimed at preserving and restoring snow leopard numbers in the Western Sayan, which is a logical sequel to many years of environmental and research activities. This time, we have specified the animals’ spatial distribution pattern and more than doubled the territory of research by placing trail cameras at longer distances from their earlier locations. To do that, we have studied the terrain in more detail and identified new signal areas, or places that are visited by snow leopards most often. This made it possible to continue the monitoring in a changed environment,” Leading Research Fellow Viktor Lukarevsky, who holds a PhD in biology, said.


Currently the project staff are collecting and analysing information. Jointly with the protection department staff, they are drafting proposals on how to improve the protective measures.