Things that have come out of our Altai snow leopard expedition

Biosphere Expeditions ran a snow leopard expedition to the Saylyugem area of the Altai Republic (Russia) from 2003-2012. We would have continued, had it not been for Russia introducing its ‘foreign agents’ law in November 2012, which made continuing expeditions with international citizen scientists impossible.

However, the expedition and its publications helped to provide the scientific base and impetus for authorities to act. All this has, in recent years, come to fruition in an impressive success story for conservation.

Shortly after the end of the expedition, the Saylyugemsky National Park was established, with its Saylyugem Mountain section roughly corresponding to the expedition study area. One of the aims of the park was to protect vulnerable argali mountain sheep and the endangered snow leopard, which is exactly what our scientific reports argued for. Needless to say that we were very pleased with that outcome.

Since then, the snow leopard population in the park has bounced back and there are now regular camera trap records of snow leopards, including females with cubs and resident males. Most of these records are made by the park authorities, Russian researchers and WWF Russia, who are permitted to work in the area.

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There has also been a rare live sighting on a mountainside, recorded in this video:

The argali population remains precarious and vulnerable to poaching, as does the Siberian ibex population. This lack of prey is a challenge to the snow leopards, as evidenced by recent findings that resident males cover distances of more than 100 km without tracking back on themselves – a very high and unusual distance for snow leopards to cover in this way. The inference is that they are forced to do this in search of large ungulate prey, which continues to be rare in the area.

In another development, also initiated by the expedition and argued for in our expedition reports, the involvement of local people in nature protection continues successfully.

There is now a joint snow leopard conservation project between WWF Russia, the National Park and local people. Local people are involved in – and paid for – camera-trapping, enforcement of environmental legislation and other conservation activities. These activities provide alternative means of income based on conservation and intact nature, and through this local poachers are, little by little, converted to conservationists who by 2020 had installed, checked and maintained 30+ cameras traps over an area of more than 300,000 hectares. These camera traps in 2020 alone recorded 74 incidences of snow leopards in the Kosh-Agach region of the Altai Republic.

All this is good news for snow leopards in particular and nature conservation in general. Biosphere Expeditions is proud to have played its part in getting this success story up and running.

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