Go east: Studying snow leopards in Russia

Go east: Studying snow leopards in Russia

24 August 2018

Andrei Poyarkov, a senior research associate at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told us about the results of the institute’s work within the framework of the Russian Geographical Society’s (RGS) programme aimed at studying snow leopards.


Question: What new information about snow leopards have the institute’s researchers learned recently?


Andrei Poyarkov: Under the programme, we obtained new data on genetic relations and differences in snow leopards living in Russia and other countries. We learned that leopards living in Russia and Mongolia make up a separate subspecies. Moreover, we became the first to prove the existence of a cross-border group of snow leopards living in Russia and northern Mongolia. Having collected the snow leopard’s genetic material at the border of the Tsagaan-Shibetu and Tsagaan Shuvuut mountain ranges, we discovered five animals that cross into both countries. Though in Mongolia, the number of snow leopards is higher due to the fact that this country has more favourable climatic conditions and a larger population of Siberian ibex, the snow leopard’s main prey. In this case, the border between Mongolia and the Republic of Tyva is a source of new animals that appear in Russia. We also carried out computer modelling of the snow leopard’s potential habitats. In late 2016, we successfully tested these complex mathematical calculations out in the field. The obtained map primarily helps us to find yet unexplored potential leopard habitats where we have not worked before. With the support of the Russian Geographical Society, we became pioneers in studying the snow leopard’s illnesses and parasites. Compared to other big cat species, such as the Amur tiger that inhabits Russia’s Far East, snow leopards have significantly less parasites. While other big cats can carry up to 10 parasite species, snow leopards only have two to three of them, sometimes none.


Question: What kind of work does the institute carry out within the framework of the RGS grant in 2018?


Andrei Poyarkov: We are now carrying out work in the eastern part of the snow leopard’s range, which is the least studied. This is the Republic of Buryatia and the Eastern Sayan Mountains in Southern Siberia. There, we conducted a number of expeditions and examined the data from camera traps that we installed back in 2015. On the Bolshoi Sayan Ridge located in the southwest of Buryatia, we discovered at least two females with cubs. More leopards were also seen near the Munku Sardyk Mountain and the Tunkinskiye Goltsy Ridge. Moreover, this year, we are planning to take a trip to the border between Russia and Mongolia, near Lake Khuvsgul in Mongolia. The Mongolian part of this leopard’s range is less explored than the Russian part; at the same time, it is highly important to establish the snow leopard’s status in this region: its habitat areas, main prey and so forth.  


Question: How many snow leopards are now living in Russia?


Andrei Poyarkov: According to the official count that encompassed 70 percent of the snow leopard’s potential habitat, there are a total of 61 leopards. The Republic of Altai has the most leopards – 35. The Republic of Tyva is home to 17 leopards, while nine live in Buryatia. There are 38 adult leopards and 23 cubs. The population in these republics is stable; in the Republic of Altai, there even is slight growth. As the most northeastern part of the snow leopard’s range with the most severe climatic conditions, Russia cannot expect the population of this animal to be large, as in, say, 500 leopards. But, of course, we can increase their numbers up to at least 150-200.  


Question: What kind of threats does snow leopard face today?


Andrei Poyarkov: The biggest one so far is, of course, poaching. On top of everything, it often happens that poachers are hunting not the snow leopard, but the musk deer; leopards happen to get caught in the traps set for these ungulates. The second serious threat is conflict with the local residents’ interests that occurs when leopards attack their cattle and get killed. The Ubsunur Hollow Biosphere Reserve, however, has recently come up with an easy way to protect cattle from snow leopards by covering the roofs of cattle pens with nets. This measure sharply decreased the number of attacks, and, therefore, the number of killed big cats. In the case of poaching, it is important to fight against it both on-site and at the government level; mainly, by banning snare traps, which are detrimental for every rare animal species. One more important issue that accounts for almost half of the success in the recovery and growth of this predator’s population is protecting the snow leopard’s food supply, namely, the Siberian ibex, from poaching. Abundant prey could positively affect the snow leopard’s population as well. As of now, this problem is particularly acute in the Republic of Buryatia. The issue of optimising protected areas is also important. More territories need to be included, namely, areas of the Sangilen Mountain Range in Eastern Tyva, in the Republic of Buryatia and the Bolshoi Sayan Ridge.  


Question: What projects aimed at studying and increasing the population of snow leopards does the institute have?


Andrei Poyarkov: We want to develop computer programmes for assessing the snow leopard’s population more accurately in order to be absolutely sure about its dynamics. I hope that we will have concrete positive results by July 2019. We will definitely study the cross-border group of snow leopards in Buryatia from both Mongolia and Russia. Perhaps Russia will prove to be the main source of animals that continue spreading across Mongolia. We will also continue our work on the snow leopard’s genetics, diseases and parasites. One more interesting aspect is studying this animal’s hormonal status, namely, assessing its stress levels. Learning to pinpoint the causes of stress in animals without having to catch them could significantly benefit our studies.