Asian mountains mystery

Asian mountains mystery

10 February 2017

The participants of the international meeting in Kathmandu on 19-20 January focused on the numbers of snow leopard in the wild and the plan of action for conservation. The event was organised by the Secretariat of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP) initiated in 2013 in the run-up to the Bishkek summit scheduled for September 2017. The Russian delegation included Viktor Lukarevsky, large mammals specialist and lead researcher at the Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve. In his interview for the Zapovednaya Rossiya website, he spoke about the results of the ministerial meeting in Nepal and important issues in the conservation of snow leopards.

Question: Mr Lukarevsky, who attended this meeting?


Viktor Lukarevsky: It was attended by prominent snow leopard researchers, representatives of environmental agencies, and international foundations. The Russian delegation included Amirkhan Amirkhanov, Deputy Head of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources.


In Kathmandu, we met with one of the pioneers and founders of this research, Rodney Jackson, although he did not deliver a report this time. Other participants spoke about the snow leopard situation in various leopard range countries, and discussed and planned measures for their protection and study. Other issues discussed in Kathmandu were climate change, the melting of glaciers, and how the snow leopard habitat is changing. After the meeting, I was even more convinced that the worldwide leopard situation is very disappointing.


Question: As I understand it, the level of snow leopard research is quite different in different countries, isn’t it?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Where the leopard situation is more or less good, it was obvious, and people were able to show it. These countries include, for example, Bhutan, which is in fact a small, poor country. I never thought that the Bhutanese would reach such a high level in their research. In 1994, I attended a meeting of the Snow Leopard Trust on snow leopard studies; these meetings are held regularly. I remember the Bhutanese report was extremely poor then. They said they knew the animal existed and regarded it as sacred. Their new report was so comprehensive and clear; the author clearly and fully explained the situation and confirmed the numbers. I was very impressed.


They estimate snow leopard population at home at 150-200 animals. You need to understand, Bhutan is a tiny place; moreover, the leopard there is protected by nature as well as by law. Its main habitat along the northern border with China is fenced off by a wall made up of mighty peaks ranging from five to seven thousand metres. Approximately 80 percent of leopard habitats in Bhutan are carefully protected nature reserves. However, interestingly, they currently use 400 camera traps there! Something few countries can afford. On an area of ​​about 400,000 hectares, according to photographic identification, 63 leopards have been reliably registered. I am talking about adult animals only. This is an incredibly high density, despite the fact that their camera traps are installed approximately on two-thirds of the territory. I think they have even more snow leopards in that one reserve, and there are two more. The Bhutanese speaker was the only one who presented specific evidence.


Question: What about the others?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Take Pakistan – they estimate snow leopard population roughly at the same level as Bhutan, about 200 animals, although the ​​suitable habitat there is three or four times greater than in Bhutan. In Pakistan, with 60 camera traps over a larger territory, they took only 56 individual photos of leopards – allow me to emphasise, not individual leopards, but images. They did not do any photo identification. They say they have collected faeces and identified 100 animals by DNA analysis. True, they did not specify the period during which they collected the material. And we all know that the snow leopard situation is changing very rapidly, that 10 years from now, it may change dramatically. These data are then extrapolated to the entire area of ​​habitat and this is how they get the figure, 200 snow leopards. Well, statistical extrapolation sounds good enough.


Question: What about the global population estimates?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Snow leopards are found in 12 countries. The worldwide population is estimated by different researchers at 4,000 to 7,000 species. I would suggest sticking to 4,000, which is somewhat closer to reality. Well, let's count.


Bhutan with 200 snow leopards (one of the most reliable estimates), Pakistan with 200, and Nepal with 200 make 600.


India. In India, there is one (maybe more, but the comments were not clear) specially protected area where there is a high density of snow leopards. They also extrapolate the statistics to the entire area of ​​suitable habitat and get the same old estimate of 200. Okay, right. But there is one curious observation. In neighbouring Bhutan, the leopard population seems to fall dramatically on the border with India – one or two registered in the entire border region. In Bhutan, the snow leopard is a sacred animal, virtually never hunted. The fall in the numbers on the border can be easily explained – poaching by people from neighbouring India. The conclusion suggests itself. But, okay, let’s assume that India has 200 snow leopards.


Mongolia estimates its snow leopard population at about 700-1000 animals.


Our colleagues in Kyrgyzstan, estimate 400-500. I used to work there myself, doing research, and I know what the real situation is – at best, there are 100, and another 100 in Kazakhstan. In Tajikistan, again, from my point of view, they need to work more to really estimate the snow leopard population. According to preliminary data, there is a maximum of 400. So the total turns out to be about 2,500.


As for the number of snow leopards in Russia, I will talk about it later, in any case, it is not more than a few dozen animals.


Question: So where does this gigantic figure of 4,000-7,000 come from?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Do not forget China. China accounts for about 70 percent of the global snow leopard habitat. Here we are talking about an estimated several thousand animals. However, when I looked at the Chinese materials, I found them somewhat unfounded, to put it mildly. There are a few publications on this subject. One of them analyses the images from camera traps in one of the specially protected areas. Animals are registered once a month or perhaps two at most, with a very low density. This is about the specially protected area. And what about the unprotected parts? I think the situation is worse there. Again, these estimates are extrapolated.


Given this, I want to go back to admiring the work done by researchers from Bhutan. That small poor country has spent a huge sum by any measure on camera traps to obtain reliable results, while richer countries seemed to find it easier to use statistical methods.


Question: What role does the number of individual animals play in the assessment of the status of the species in general?


Viktor Lukarevsky: I have always believed and continue to believe that, what is really crucial for the general stability of the snow leopard as a species, is not the number of individuals, but the number of viable reproductive groups. A group is not a single individual. A group is viable if the female who was its reproductive core but died for any reason, is immediately replaced by another. If the group is unable to compensate for the loss, it is not viable. In my estimate, compact viable groups of snow leopards in areas where the population density is more than two leopards per 100 sq km, can be counted on the fingers of two hands. Three in Bhutan, although the density is much higher there, about five or six leopards per 100 sq km; in Nepal, maybe two; one or two in India; one in Kyrgyzstan; one or two in Tajikistan, perhaps three;  five to seven in Mongolia and an unknown number in China.


Question: What is the situation in Russia?


Viktor Lukarevsky: Disappointing, unfortunately. Russia is located at the edge of the snow leopard habitat. At the beginning of our work in the late 1990s, we estimated the number of snow leopards in Russia at 100-120. The report made by WWF Altai-Sayan Branch coordinator for rare species Alexander Karnaukhov in Kathmandu contained a figure of around 70. In my own personal assessment, it's much worse – the number of snow leopards in Russia barely reaches 35; maybe a little more due to transborder movement of leopards that live on the border with Mongolia.


As for the reproductive cores in Russia, this question is even more controversial than the population numbers. Some researchers believe that there are reproductive groups despite the obvious lack of data. If a group has one or two females, this group cannot be considered sustainable or stable. By comparison, Kyrgyzstan has seven reproductive females in the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve, on a relatively small area of ​​about 50,000 hectares. This is a categorically different situation. I repeat: Russia represents the edge of the snow leopard’s habitat, which is under severe poaching pressure.


Back to the population numbers. We could play with these numbers all we like – 2,000, 4,000 or even 5,000 – but we are not cattle breeders and should not just count the number of heads. We know that the decisive role in the survival of the species is played by the structure of the population. It is important that we have viable groups, not scattered individuals. Exploring the species, we must seek to understand it. Saving the snow leopard requires further research and a harsher crackdown on poaching.