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Looking for the Snow Leopard

A day in the Sailugem National Park

I went to Sailugem National Park, armed with all the necessary photo equipment to shoot pictures of wild animals in their natural habitat. In the evening, I arrived at the Kosh-Agach Vistor's Center. During the tea break, I shared my professional plans with the local biologist Denis Malikov, the deputy director of science of the park. Well, Denis did not laugh at my ambitious plans, but he did hint that my ambitions as a wildlife photographer were set way too high. It turned out that no one had yet managed to capture a photo of a snow leopard in Russia, not even with a professional camera. All images of the animal have been taken on the Mongolian side. Irbis (the Russian name of the snow leopard) are so cautious and elusive, that a chance to see one is considered an exceptional success. Well, even biologists who study leopards have rarely seen them in the wild. Denis has been working in the national park for almost six years, and he has never been able to even catch a glimpse of a rare big cat.

"But if we are lucky,"  Denis reassured me, «tomorrow we will probably see a snow leopard in the pictures on the camera traps, we’ll check a couple of them."

It's difficult to say, what the total population of the snow leopard is in the world, but scientists assume there are between 4000 and 7000 animals. This wide range is simple to explain - snow leopards are hardly studied, there is no general database, and experts from different countries where the snow leopard lives (Mongolia, China, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India) barely communicate. There are only 18 snow leopards within the territory of the Sailugem National Park. Over 1,500 cats live in Mongolia, according to local scientists’ research. But Russian scientists prefer not to comment on these numbers, because an official database does not exist and there is no single approach to the study of snow leopards. Thanks to camera traps, the Russian scientists do know each local Sailugem leopard “in person”, and there is kind of a passport for each cat.

"And what about microchip implants or shock collars, why don’t you use them?"  I asked.
"We consciously made a decision not to «chip» the leopards, because of even the smallest probability that it can cause harm or death to the animal. We simply cannot allow this. Well, despite that, there is the fact that leopards can get stuck in snare traps, with spring mechanisms that scratch the cat’s thigh and cause it to be injured. Trying to free itself, the snow leopard may dislocate its paw. That’s why it is necessary to free the animal as soon as possible - on the same or at least the next day. But the problem is we can’t control the entire territory every day, these are hard-to-reach places", answered Denis.
"But is it possible to track the leopards with a camera-drone?" I did not give up.
"Well, it is possible", agreed Denis, «But drones must be professional, with a large flight radius and a thermographic camera. These are too expensive for us at the moment, we can’t afford them. It's a big pity, because such drones could help us to track argali (wild sheep) as well." 

  • Orange-fact
    Snow leopard or Irbis, is an animal from the family of Felidae (cats), of the genus Panthera. It is  listed as endangered species. It is the only cat that has adapted to living in the harsh conditions of the highlands. Within Russia, snow leopards live only on the very edge of a larger territory that consists of 12 countries: Russia, Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Bhutan.

"So what can you do?" I asked.
"We are working on an interesting project together with the Russian Geographical Society and Mongolian colleagues, which will allow us to make a cross-border registration of snow leopards. But at the moment, we can only work within the territory of the Sailugem National Park. Soon we will make an expedition to the Kuralsky Range (which has not been studied yet) supported by the Russian Geographical Society," answered Denis.

Early in the morning, we took an old soviet UAZ-452 off-road van and drove into the orange desert, with a strong desire to go hiking in the mountains. We drove past several camps of herders, flocks of sheep, apathetic semi-wild camels and cautious wild yaks.

The adventure was expected to last until sunset - leopards live in the border zone, in hard-to-reach places. It is about a 40 km off-road drive in each direction. On the way to the mountains, we made a short stop to look at the local petroglyphs. It is difficult to say how many of them there are in total, but we counted about 30. The ancient people seemed to be bored between hunting trips, so they drew whatever they could: deer, humans and, of course, Altai ibexes.

 

  • Orange-fact
    In addition to snow leopards, Pallas's cat (manul), argali and ibexes, the Sailugem National Park is also home to deer, Siberian musk deer, roe deer, sable, wolverine, ermine, weasel, wolf, lynx, fox and brown bears (which are listed in the Red List of the Altai Republic).

The driver pulled over as he saw a rare bird. "Last week, with a group of ornithologists I looked for a rare species of birds that lives in our park,"  Denis grinned, "We even lured them with rotten meat – with no success. And now look! There is one, sitting right there just five meters away." 

Most camera traps can only be reached by foot. But some of them can be reached by UAZ. More than 50 cameras are located across the Sailugem National Park. The energy of high quality lithium batteries is enough to last for a full year of operation. However, park employees try to check camera traps more often, once every one and a half months.



It is almost impossible to notice the camera traps. They are mounted into the rocks and completely invisible. Denis skillfully opened the case, turned on the playback function and sighed with deep disappointment. Something went wrong and this memory card was damaged.



"Well, sometimes it happens," Denis said,  "Often camera traps are stolen, or sometimes  animals damage them, especially wolverines and bears."  The second camera shot more than 4 thousand pics though. It turned out that at this little spot, near the cliff, there are a lot of interesting things going on, when there are no people around.

Denis looked through his binoculars and noticed something unusual: a flock of black vultures was circling in one area. It was not possible to see what exactly attracted the attention of these black vultures; we were too far away. I suggested that we use my camera drone to see the victim. The drone flew over the gorge, the vultures flew away, and on the screen we could see that wolves had torn a young yak to pieces. The herder was looking for him just the other day, but never found him. Later, after lunch, we will, of course, stop by his camp and tell him the sad news, he will simply shrug his shoulders - it happens often in Sailugem, this is wildlife.

 

Denis Malikov is a biologist.  While we were climbing the very top of the mountain, he told me that even in high school he dreamed of working at the Hunting Supervision Department, which actually happened a bit later. He admitted that his job at the Sailugem National Park is much more interesting, there are various landscapes, interesting species to study, the rarest of which is the snow leopard, of course.

 

Sailugem National Park is one of the youngest in Russia, it was created in 2010 in the territory of the Altai Republic, on the border with Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China. But in fact it began to operate in 2014. The main task of its employees is to create a reserve zone that will include all habitats where rare argali and snow leopards live.

We drove less than half a kilometer, and far behind the hill we noticed a small herd of the world's largest sheep - argali. Large males of argali weigh more than 200 kg. The length of their horns can be up to 2 meters, and their weight reaches 27 kg. The world population of the Siberian mountain sheep is only 4,500 animals. There are just 1,200 sheep in Sailugem, because in the winter most of them migrate to Mongolia. Winter is not an easy time for argali, they are afraid of snowfalls, a depth of snow more than 15 cm is already dangerous for mountain sheep. Unlike domestic sheep, argali are not able to dig into the snow with their hooves. At the beginning of the XXI century, according to estimates of specialists, there were only about 500 large argali in the world. But after just a few years of active work by the park’s staff, the number increased to 1200. Although scientists assume that there were some migrations from Mongolia.

Later in the evening, in the hotel of the tourist centre, I looked at the pictures from camera traps together with Denis - most of the pictures had a technical defect. The camera sensors had reacted to a blizzard, and there were hundreds of shots of the snowstorm on the memory card. However, some pictures were pretty interesting. Wolves hunting for argali was captured frame by frame: sheep were panicking at night, running away from predators. But it seems that the mountain sheep managed to fight back.

  

In many pics we can see a hare. Obviously it lives not far from the camera trap and feels pretty safe snooping around and then jumping into his hole at the first fright.

"How often are snow leopards captured by the camera traps?" - I was curious.
"More often during winter," said Denis, "In summer, their activity decreases due to the large number of rodents. So leopards don’t need to go far for hunting, and they are too lazy to hunt ungulates. But in winter, when most rodents are in hibernation, leopards have to look for food, and then they often take "selfies". If they stay in one place for a while, they can constantly get into the camera lens."
"It seems to me that if some photographer has a target and is very patient, that he will be able to capture the precious shots," I still did not give up.
"It is quite possible," Denis agreed optimistically, "But then, you need to track down a female with newborn kittens and most importantly, do not frighten her. For almost a month after birth, they live in a den, in caves. The female snow leopard sometimes leaves her kittens alone and goes hunting. Leopards are territory dependent animals; each animal has his own personal area. The total length of this can be about 200 km. Once we were watching a leopard for a long time, which was captured by the cameras for three months in a row on the same date - on the fifth day of every month! We assumed that it takes a month to go around its personal area. Snow leopards are a cross-border species, there are some studies that prove that in some parts of the Chikhachev ridge, cats migrate back and forth across the border." 

  • Orange fact
    The snow leopard has a very long tail, the length of the animal can reach more than two meters, if measured to the tip of the tail. The leopard has wide paws; it is able to move around in the snow without falling into it. Unlike other cats, the snow leopard cannot growl. But it can jump masterly -  up to 6 meters in length and up to 3 in height. Leopards rarely breed; the female gives birth once every two years. Irbis is at the top of the food chain, it is almost a perfect predator in the area of its habitat without enemies.

"So, why do snow leopards prefer Mongolia? It seems that the landscapes are very similar… Do they have fewer poachers in Mongolia?" I wondered.

"The Mongols more often see snow leopards in river valleys, below gorges. In Russia snow leopards prefer highlands, for some reason. We think that animals are just being cautious. According to the law, there are huge penalties and even criminal liability for hunting a snow leopard. Poachers no longer hunt the snow leopard. Almost. But still the indirect threat comes from them. Irbis often fall into snare traps placed for musk deer. Leopards take the same paths as musk deer and can become innocent victims. There were times when a female fell into traps along with her offspring. According to rough estimates, poachers can set up 5 thousand snare traps in just one season.

 

In Mongolia, there is no problem. It seems that in Russia it is difficult to prohibit hunting for musk deer, probably because of lobbying. There are legal limits for musk deer hunting in Russia in the Irkutsk Region, and it seems that they are using it to legalise poaching in the Kosh-Agach region. It was a great effort to include the musk deer into the regional Red List of the Altai Republic. This will certainly make the business of poachers more complicated. But even this is not enough. If we prohibit the circulation and export of animal derivatives from Russia, this would completely stop poaching. The main consumers of the musk of Siberian deer are China and South Korea. Most of the products are sold there, and there is always high demand for it. The price growth curve of musk looks more profitable than the one for gold. It has never decreased, and the growth rate is higher than the rate of gold.


Photo: Sailugem National Park
There are no forests in Sailugem where Siberian musk deer are live. The snow leopard lives where the Altai ibexes live - their main prey. In Sailugem the amount of Altai Ibexes is small, about 500 animals, in the Argut National Park there are more than 3.5 thousand animals. But here is the problem: Altai ibexes are not considered as an endangered species and hunting is allowed everywhere in Altai. Trophy hunting is in great demand. A couple of years ago, we managed to reduce the quotas on hunting. Previously, it was allowed to shoot more than 100 animals, later - 50. But this year the Animal Welfare Committee increased the limit up to 80 animals." 

"So, according to the official data there are 500 ibexes in the Sailugem National park, and every year it is allowed to shoot as many as 80?" I'm shocked.
"Yes, you should also understand, that the ibexes are already in danger because of the wolves and snow leopards. And also that with 80 legal permits, hunters will shoot at least twice as many. And this is direct route to extermination", Denis said.
"And how much does a permit cost?" I wonder.
"It costs about two thousand rubles", answered Denis.
2000 rubles. It's hard to believe.

For a while we scrolled through the frames on the screen in complete silence, each of us was thinking about something personal, until Denis began to rub his hands vigorously. He saw that in one of the pictures, there was a rare wild cat.
"It is believed that the Pallas's cat has the weakest immune system of all cats on the planet» Denis said, "This cat is very frail. Sometimes, during a depression, the species completely disappears from the area. Then it suddenly returns. It is very dependent on the layer of snow covering the ground and the amount of pikas."

"Wait, a depression?" I surprisingly asked. It turned out, that «the depression» is a scientific term, which means a decline in the amount of animals, “So it looks like the snow leopard is also depressed?
"Well, you can say that for now. But we hope to fix it" Denis summarised.

What do you need to know before visiting the Sailugem National Park:

  • A special permit is required to visit the park and it must be arranged in advance. In addition, you will need a border pass to visit the border zone, which also should be issued at the park office.

  • How to get there:
    The easiest way to get there is by taking a car to Kosh-Agach.

  • Where to stay:
    In the Tourist centre in Kosh-Agach or in the visitor’s centre in the Chagan-Burgazy Tract which is 40 km from Kosh-Agach, and it is on the top of the mountains with a view of the Chuya Valley.

     
  • Things to do: There are a variety of guided tours in the National park - horseback riding, hiking, educational tours. All details can be found on the website www.sailugem.ru

The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit to the Sailugem National Park is recommended by the Russian geographical society.

The tour operator LB Tour, in Altai, will arrange for you to see the beauty of Altai, to learn about local traditions and have a real adventure LB Tour.



 

You can see the photo report about Altai Krai and Altai Mountains here.
Also read about Altai:
The Princess of Ukok
The most beautiful places in Altai
The most beautiful places of the Altai Mountains
A female Blacksmith: The Mother-anvil
Karakol Valley: Protected by Spirits

Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1

   

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