Update from The Altai Project, 28 May 2011

Greetings from The Altai Project!

It’s summer in Altai, although the snowmelt still fills churning rivers. Here in California we have finally seen the end of our winter rainy season. Over the winter at The Altai Project, we reflected on our accomplishments and lessons for 2010:

The first ever camera-trap study of snow leopards in the Argut River watershed gave disappointing but clear results – there are no remaining snow leopards in the northern part of the watershed despite a prey-rich environment and fairly isolated landscape.

Poaching has become the number one threat to large mammals in Altai Republic. Using snares, desperately impoverished people indiscriminately capture and kill animals for sale on the Asian medicinals market.

Over the past year, partners like Foundation for the Sustainable Development of Altai and WWF-Altai-Sayan launched the “Land of the Snow Leopard” ecotourism program, engaging the local community in sustainable economic development.

Despite much local criticism and Western analysts’ initial skepticism, Russia and China are increasingly intent on building a natural gas pipeline across Altai’s culturally and environmentally unique Ukok Plateau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This year The Altai Project will work to protect at-risk species like raptors and the critically endangered snow leopard and argali mountain sheep and to improve scientific knowledge of these species with the help of our local partners at Arkhar and Siberian Environmental Center. We will also support our partner Danil Mamyev in his decades-long effort to protect the sacred Karakol Valley. And we will lead an international campaign in partnership with the Save Ukok Coalition to reroute the proposed pipeline away from the Ukok Plateau.

Please help us protect Altai, a pearl in the world’s ecological crown. Here are some details about our upcoming work. See below for a list of ways to donate or get involved.

In July, The Altai Project and SUNY-Syracuse’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry will send a conservation biologist and two electronics specialists to work with our Altai partners installing heat- and metal-sensing detectors in poaching areas in Altaisky Zapovednik. These devices enable rangers to catch poachers fast, before they make a kill.

In August, we will send a team of field biologists and graduate students to southeastern Altai to conduct joint surveys of argali mountain sheep with local activists. This survey will occur simultaneously in Mongolia and Altai, giving us valuable information about the world’s largest sheep species. Tracking this transboundary population allows us to see the effects of poaching and estimate snow leopard prey levels.

Arkhar needs a small grant to begin intensive work on reducing subsistence poaching in Altai. Poachers place so many snares along migratory routes that animals have almost no chance of avoiding them, spelling death for snow leopards, Siberian ibex and mountain goats, musk deer, lynx, and other animals. Arkhar will hire locals to remove the snares, and other partners will help Altaians develop alternative economic opportunities.

When the rivers freeze over in winter, Arkhar will resume camera-trapping studies with local volunteers to locate snow leopards in Altai Republic. Knowledge of their current range and population will equip us to support their return to prime habitat areas.

We have given Siberian Environmental Center seed funding to protect Altai’s raptors – golden eagle, steppe eagle, imperial eagle, peregrine falcons, and eagle owls. Many birds are electrocuted on power lines in Altai each year, and a third of them are raptors. SEC will work with power companies and the government to retrofit power poles and transmission lines to prevent these bird deaths. In addition, SEC has dedicated the May edition of its well-respected Raptor Conservation journal to the risks of a proposed pipeline across the Ukok Plateau, home to many important bird species.

Russia and China are close to reaching an agreement on the price of natural gas that would flow through this pipeline. They are predicted to close the deal by summer 2011, and our Altaian partners are bracing a full-tilt campaign to reroute the pipeline away from Ukok. The Save Ukok Coalition has already developed the http://saveukok.ru/ website and is building a posse of respected experts to fight Gazprom and the government every step of the way in order to protect Altai’s cultural heritage, unique natural environment, and rural communities.

The Altai Project has received special support from Weeden Foundation this year to sponsor an international campaign against the pipeline’s construction. We’re planning to fund a public environmental impact assessment, raise international awareness of the Altai region and the pipeline’s threats, and work closely with the Save Ukok Coalition to avert this potential disaster.


Jennifer Castner
Project Director

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