The snow leopard is a rare and quickly vanishing animal, which ranks as Category 1 – i.e. critically endangered – on Russia's list of threatened species. The number of snow leopards in Russia is now extremely low, hitting an estimated 150-200 animals in 2002. Today, this number may be down by two-thirds according to researchers, who claim that the decline is mostly a result of poaching. Other factors may include the destruction of the snow leopards’ habitat and other natural corridors by which they formerly maintained vital interspecies contacts. This, combined with dwindling numbers of wild sheep and goats, an ineffective environmental protection system, and, of course, the low environmental awareness of local people, has conspired to place the species in critical danger.
Russia has launched a massive programme to study and monitor the snow leopard population in southern Siberia with the support of the Russian Geographical Society and the chairman of the Society’s board of trustees, Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin has personally overseen the implementation of this and other programmes “to study animals on Russia’s endangered species list and other particularly important species of Russian fauna,” such as the Amur tiger, beluga (white whale), and polar bear. The programmes are being conducted by the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Snow Leopard Programme was launched in 2010 and is scheduled to last five years. The main objective of the programme is to assess the status of the snow leopard population across its entire habitat range in Russia, determine its key reproductive base, and develop a scientific framework to ensure its long-term preservation in southern Siberia. Researchers involved in the effort will also trace the migration patterns of these animals, establish their numerical strength, study their reproductive biology, characteristics of their habitat, their diets, the distribution and population fluctuations of their main prey, and their relations with competing predators. Also, on the basis of the research, strategies will be updated and recommendations developed for the conservation of this endangered species.
One of the project’s primary tasks is to raise awareness about snow leopard conservation efforts among communities in southern Siberia. Researchers will work with the local media to educate the public about these magnificent creatures.
The Russian Geographical Society’s Khakassia branch, set up in the autumn of 2010, provides assistance to researchers working in the nature preserves Khakassky and Pozarym. It has already provided fifteen camera traps, six snow bikes, two ATVs, and some necessary pieces of equipment and accessories.
Camera traps will be used to count the population of snow leopards and their prey as well as to trace the migratory patterns of both. Over the last six months, researchers have installed more than a hundred camera traps, which are equipped with motion sensors, so they take a picture of any object that crosses their path. These devices can now be found in southwestern Tuva, in the south of the Krasnoyarsk Territory, and in southern Khakassia.
Snow leopards will also be surveyed with the help of satellite tracking collars. These high-tech devices will enable researchers to learn more about the migration of leopards and their relations within home ranges.
The snow leopard programme involves molecular and hormonal non-invasive research, an analysis of the habitat range and the seasonal migration patterns of the leopard population and its prey, and will also attempt to assess the genetic status of families and the health of individual snow leopards.
The researchers involved in the programme are planning to expand the area of their fieldwork so that ultimately it covers the entire habitat range of snow leopards in Russia. They also intend to coordinate their biological research and population count with fellow scientists involved in snow leopard research in neighbouring countries, notably Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan.