Russian Academy of Sciences snow leopard research in south-eastern Siberia

Mysterious and elusive snow leopard

Oct 8, 2010 13:09 Moscow Time

Scientists from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences are currently looking at the snow leopard population in south-eastern Siberia. The snow leopard is on the Endangered Species List, with a worldwide population of six thousand species, around 150 of which live in Russia.

In August, during the first stage of the expedition, biologists together with local guides put out 48 camera points to identify the animals, because the pattern on the fur of each one is unique. These cameras were a novelty to the leopards, and they examined them on their mountainous paths, sniffing and rubbing their noses in them, thus unfortunately spoiling the majority of the shots. Sometimes a person spends a really long time waiting to encounter a snow leopard, climbs snow-capped mountains in vain, not suspecting that he himself is an object of study: the leopard is carefully watching him from a remote hiding spot. For a scientist to see this elusive creature is a great fortune, because it is an extremely cautious animal, says the head of the expedition Andrei Poyarkov.

I can honestly say that I have never seen a snow leopard in the wild. But both of our guides, who work at the Uvs Nuur Basin Natural Heritage Reserve, saw leopards this winter and took the first ever Russian photographs – not from stationary points but using hand-held cameras. The snow leopard is a true mountain dweller. He is extremely agile – he treads mountain paths very well and can climb great heights. He has a massive leap. His fur is fantastic – he is extremely well dressed because he lives in very harsh conditions with deep winter frosts. He is very lively and well coordinated. In the course of the current expedition, researchers hope to capture several species to mark them and collar them with radio transmitters. This will help to track their movement and behavior via satellites, says Andrey Poyarkov.

The programme is very vast. It includes several fields of research: migration, group kinship and the study of the specifics of the snow leopard’s molecular genetics. We will invite Mongolian researches to join studies and exchange samples. I hope that we will be able to develop a number of practical measures for improving the protection and well-being of the snow leopard population. This animal is a very valuable resource that is highly attractive for both eco-tourists and researchers, says Poyarkov.

The “Snow Leopard” programme is currently being overseen by the Russian Geographical Society along with other programmes for studying endangered species in Russia, including the Amur tiger, the white whale, the Far-Eastern leopard and the polar bear. The current expedition is just the start of a major scientific project. Locals, who consider the snow leopard to be the holy spirit of the mountains, will get involved. In the near future, a snow leopard museum will be set up in Siberia.

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