Saving snow leopards in Tuva, Russia (includes information re: database of sightings)

Don’t shoot the irbis!
21 August 2010

Alexander Kuksin, Center of Asia, translated by Heda Jindrak

Tuva holds an immense amount of treasures and mysteries. One of these treasures is irbis, the beautiful and mysterious snow leopard, to see whom is a rare fortune. However the officials of the republic are not at all concerned about the preservation of this red-book animal, and some would not even object to receiving the wonderful hide of the dead beauty as a present. And only thanks to the WWF is it possible to conduct work in Tuva for the purpose of protection of the snow leopard – there are about 100 of them here, which is about one half of their total number in Russia.

There are so few of them on our planet

In contrast to the usual idea about the white fur of this predator, generally the background coloring ranges from milky or cream to ochre.

Black spots are scattered all over this background, most of which have an elongated, semicircular form.

These spots are used by scientists to identify individual leopards in work with photo-traps, and this, in turn, allows them to determine which of the leopards permanently reside on the territory, and which are only using it in transit to other areas.

Irbis is a representative of the cat family, placed between the medium and large cats in terms of size. The body length is up to 130 cm, tail 110 cm; a large male may weigh between 45 – 50 kg.

The irbis lives only in the Asian part of the Eurasian continent mass, on the territory of 12 states, and the total numbers are no higher than sex or seven thousand.

The largest numbers of irbises live on Chinese territory. In Russia, on approximate evaluation, there are no more than 200 individuals.

And one half of them – about 100 individuals – is concentrated precisely in Tuva, in the high mountain regions that surround the republic: the ridges of the Sayans, Sengilen, Tannu-ola, Tsagan-Shibetu, Shapshal, Chikhacheva.

In the world of science there is a widespread idea about this cat as an inhabitant of very high mountain regions – from 3000 to 5500 meters above the sea level, but in Tuva they can be seen even at 600-800 meters above sea level.

The irbis can even show up in places totally exotic for them – at the border of forest and forested steppe regions. Once he was even seen on the territory of “Taiga” Nature park, which is only 50 km from Kyzyl.

The territory of the republic is important also for social life of irbises from different groups of the northern part of the area; individuals from Mongolia transit through Tuva when on the way to Krasnoyarsk Krai, Buryatia, or Altai. This is important for mating – it prevents inbreeding, which causes genetic defects. Tuva holds several areas which are crucial for continued propagation of these animals.

Who is watching whom

It is impossible for researchers to determine the exact numbers of snow leopards because of the secretive lifestyle of these predators.

It often happens that the researchers, who call themselves “irbisyatniki”, do not ever see the object of their research. But the object of their studies regularly observes the scientists, following their tracks, sniffing out just who these people are and what do they want from the irbis.

To meet an irbis, the scientist has to gather a lot of experience, studying the habits of the animals, and to become more subtle and alert than the animal. Regardless of its secretiveness, mysteriousness and unreachability, today the irbis is vulnerable, and its fate is totally dependent on human goodwill.

Cases of intentional destruction of the leopard are known – for profit by sale of the animal’s skin or to give it as a present to an official in exchange for favors.

People bring harm to irbis by shooting mountain goats, roe-deer, musk-deer, and marmots in the places where irtbis lives. Pastureland which spreads to the high mountain regions also displaces wild hoofed mammals, which again curtails the food base of the irbis.

In consequence, irbis attacks domestic livestock that is grazing in the areas of his range. And it is not the fault of the animal that it could not find any other wild prey because of poaching activities, until, faced with starvation, it finally risks an attack on a herdsman’s cattle.

Irbish-ool – a compliment for a man

People have known the irbis on Tuvan territory since ancient times. They revered him and worshipped him. To these times, to call a man Irbish-ool means a great compliment to his skill, intelligence and strength – the qualities of his mysterious namesake.

The small proportion of the population of the republic which lives in the mountain region and is more dependent on the vagaries of nature than on the will of the officials, who generally remember them only at election time, still speak of the irbis as of the Master.

This is especially strongly expressed by the herders of the Sengilen mountains in the Southeast part of the republic. The herders of that region believe that it is not allowed to harm the irbis, it is not permissible to be angry with him and to curse at him, because this will have negative consequences for the person and for his household. There will be punishment from above. They will tell you many true-life stories about local men who, having killed a snow leopard, ended their lives by a knife in a drunken brawl.

A light for the officials

People for whom nature is their real home never harm the irbis in contrast to “strong hunters”, whose poaching activities are currently without obstacle. Neither Tere-Khol, nor Mongun-Taiga kozhuuns have currently any inspectors from the State commission on hunting and fishing of Republic Tuva, charged with obligations to protect the world of animals.

The attitude of the leadership of the commission is totally incomprehensible; they ignore multiple reports of misconduct. Not just the irbis suffers, but all the other predators as well, and the above districts are one of the key areas in terms of population densities of a large number of animal species!

Regardless of the fact that irbis is listed in all kinds of Red Books of various levels, the attitude of the officials is, to put it gently, neutral.

Even such an omnipotent and mighty office like Administration of the Federal service of Russian nature supervision in Tuva, regardless of the facts of yearly losses of irbises during the past three years, can turn a blind eye to it and does not make any efforts to protect this red-book animal of federal significance.

To keep the leopard fed and the herdsman whole: the end of a promising project

Currently only the nature reserve “Ubsunur depression” pays any attention to the problem of snow leopard.

And not because the “rulers” are concerned, but only because of non-profit organizations like WWF, UN development projects, and the Global ecological Foundation. It is because of their support that the monitoring of snow leopard groups is going on in Western Tuva.

Since 2000, various activities associated with protection of the snow leopard have been going on in Tuva. The most important one of these projects was a program of voluntary insurance of domestic livestock from irbis depredations, which was carried out jointly by WWF and RESO-Garantiya” insurance company.

The project intended for the leopard to be fed without losses to the herdsmen. For that purpose, a contract was made with each herder who wished to insure his herd. The insurance was free for the herders: the compensation for the insured animals was put up by the Russian office of WWF. The crucial condition of the contract was the prevention of persecution of predators by herdsmen.

Every insured herder was issued a camera and film to document the consequences of irbis attack on his livestock. On presentation of the photo-documentation, an inspection with investigation of the scene of the attack would be performed by zoological experts.

Compensation was offered for every animal that died by the claw of the irbis: $100 for a cow or a horse, $30 for a sheep or a goat. These numbers, of course, do not represent the full value of the dead animal, however, for the herdsman who lost his herd, it is a substantial compensation.

In the year 2003, the herders became really interested in the project, developed faith in its effectiveness, and that the insurance can really help them to forget their rage towards the predator.

The project gave the people a chance to understand that the irbis attacks their herds not out of good life or love of delicacies, but because people have forgotten the ancient rules which allowed our ancestors to live in harmony with nature.

People who share the mountains with the irbis understand that this rare animal is important not just for their mountain world: it turns out that people all over the world are concerned about the problem of its protection and are prepared to pay money to suffering herdsmen to show consideration and mercy for the animal.

But, unfortunately, this year the project ended. It anticipated renewal with the condition of co-financing by the government of Tuva. Many requests by the WWF to the government of the republic allowed them to come to an agreement about co-operation, and to make a decision to establish a government foundation, but the because of the usual personnel changes and transfers the dream will remain a dream.

Fortify the koshara

In 2007-2009, a project was realized on the territories of Mongun-Taiga and Tere-Khol kozhuuns, involving the fortification of the kosharas to prevent entry by irbis.

During the research it became clear that an irbis attack on a pasture usually involves no more than three heads of small horned cattle, while if the attack occurs in the koshara, up to 70 heads may be killed. In such a situation the irbis usually only injures the majority of these animals, who then die later of their injuries or of wound infections.

In one entry of irbis into a koshara, the herdsman may lose up to 210 thousand rubles. At the same time, to fortify the koshara effectively costs no more than 1.5 thousand rubles.

To disseminate the experience, a brochure was worked out and published, “Fortification of koshara against irbis entry”, which was distributed for free among the interested herders in the areas of irbis habitat.

Living animal which brings income to people: our Mongun-taiga project

In 2010, with financial support by PROON/GEF project of “Ubsunur depression” nature reserve, a project was designed and is being realized which involves the organization of educational eco-tourism on the territory of Mongun-Taiga kozhuun. Local population is recruited to guide tours in the areas of habitat of rare animal species – irbis and argali – the Altai mountain sheep.

The project is basically simple but important: local herders welcome tourists – guests, who are interested in the irbis. The herders tell them real-life stories about irbis, show them signs of its presence on their land. And that way they get an income from tourism.

Irbis will attack the livestock just like before, but now the herder will get an advantage from that. If he preserves irbis and argali on his land, tourists who value wild nature will flock there, wishing to sample the local cuisine, to stay in a traditional Tuvan dwelling, and to obtain souvenirs hand-made by the herdsmen.

In parallel, scientists will observe the situation of the condition of the groups of irbis and argali, and recommend further areas for conducting tours.

In that way, that herder will have the greatest advantage, who continues to believe in the irbis: if he protects the irbis, he will be well fed and happy, if he harms the irbis, he will “swallow the saliva of envy”, watching the tourists flocking to his neighbor.

If you don’t believe that this is possible, review the experience in Nepal and Mongolia, where for several years the herders have been living without problems, with an income from eco-tourism, and the minimal losses of livestock by irbis attacks are considered good investment. As they say – “That is all right, he does not eat that much, and it brings in so much income when he lives at my place!”

In September of this year, a trial tour is planned, which will serve to start the next stage of the recruitment of local population and preservation of the biodiversity of Tuva.

And has he eaten a lot?

Has the irbis eaten a lot of cattle? In May of 2010, questioning of herders of Bai-Taiga kozhuun took place.

These are the results: in 9 years – from 2001 to 2010 on the territory of the district 127 heads of domestic cattle fell prey to irbises, out of which small horned cattle constituted 116, and large horned cattle 11 heads.

At the same time, according to data, just during 2009 and five months of 2010, in the same district 703 heads of livestock perished by wolf attacks, out of which 582 were small, 105 large, and 16 horses.

The work in protection of irbis and other rare animals, despite the difficulties, continues. I invite activists and nature protection organizations to become involved and to help us.

Stories about meeting the irbis

You can bring in your contribution to the data base of meetings, sightings and events connected with snow leopard, by sending a letter with the report about your meeting with him.

Include your name, surname, patronymic, name of the locality, date of the event, time of day, behavior of the animal (what he was doing when you saw him).

Send your letters to: 667010, Kyzyk, ul.Kalinina, 144a, “Ubsunur depression” nature preserve, Alexander Kuksin.

Or use e-mail:

Your reports are very important, remember that to see an irbis means great good fortune.

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