Altaisky Zapovednik press release: snow leopard habitat study in the Argut River Valley (Altai Republic)

PRESS RELEASE – Altaisky Zapovednik
Mikhail Paltsyn,

09 December 2010

On November 30, Altaisky Zapovednik finished an expedition to study snow leopard habitat in the Argut River Valley (Altai Republic). The expedition was organized as part of the UNDP/GEF project. Zapovednik staff, local residents from Inegen, and two Mongolian snow leopard specialists participated in the work.

Field work occurred in the lower portion of the Argut River watershed to the Shavla River, as well as the left bank of the Argut River between the mouths of the Shavla and Koir Rivers. The main goals of the expedition were to search for evidence of snow leopard activity and to survey population numbers for Siberian mountain goats in the given area. During the work, both traditional means (searching evidence of life: claw-rakes, scrapes, scent-markings, and pugmarks) and camera-trapping were used. Ungulate population levels were assessed visually on study routes. Across the entire research area, over 600 Siberian mountain goats were counted, numbers that are comparable to data gathered in 2007 and 2008 at this same site.

Over the course of the study more than 18 camera-traps installed in early October along the left bank of the Argut River between the Koir and Shavla Rivers were checked. The camera-traps were set up along intersections of mountain paths (narrow, low ridges, cliff ledges, and ravine passages) that are unavoidable for local species passing through the area. It should be noted that in these specific places the team found traces of old poaching snares. In addition to numerous mountain goats, the camera-traps recorded images of practically all the animal representatives of the Argut Valley including maral deer, musk deer, sable, and foxes. The automatic cameras photographed four different lynx and even captured three instances of the extremely cautious wolf. However, no snow leopard was photographed. The camera traps were distributed at optimal density for discovering the existence of snow leopard (1 camera per 10-16 sq. km) and they were left in place for over 30 days. For these reasons, we are confident that there are essentially no snow leopards in the research area between the mouths of the Koir and Shavla Rivers. The absence of snow leopards in the given area is further supported by the fact that no verifiable traces of this predator’s life activities were discovered here either.

The right banks of the Argut River between the Shavla and Koir Rivers were not yet possible to study, because the river ice is not yet thick enough, rendering a crossing there either impossible or extremely dangerous. This area, as well as the the Koir and Yungur Rivers basins, will be studied using camera traps in December 2010-March 2011. To date since October 2010, only a small portion of snow leopard habitat in the Argut watershed has been studied (the area below the mouth of the Shavla River and the left bank of the Argut River between the mouths of the Shavla and Koir Rivers). The rare predator has not yet been found in the region despite excellent snow leopard habitat and high populations of Siberian mountain goat – a primary prey animal for snow leopards.

The fieldwork was supported by WWF, Panthera Foundation, Altai
Assistance Project, and The Altai Project.

Camera traps for snow leopard to be installed in the Argut River valley, Russia

5 Oct 2010

[Excerpting only new information. Translation courtesy of Jennifer Castner, The Altai Project.]

“It is extremely important that local residents participate in the
area’s snow leopard monitoring. Installation of the camera traps will
all local residents to be drawn into nature conservation projects. “We
are not seeing any targeted snow leopard hunting along the middle
Argut right now,” commented Mikhail Paltsyn, director of the rare
species conservation project. “But poachers are still setting up great
numbers of snares for musk deer in the Koir and Yungur River valleys,
and those can catch snow leopard as well. In 2008, one of those
poachers was arrested in Koir for setting over 300 snares.”

This press release was developed by WWF-Russia (Altai-Sayan project)

Press Release from UNDP/GEF press office & WWF: Land of the Snow Leopard Project, Russia, 20 October 2010

Beginning on October 5, 2010, a 12-day expedition took place along the middle stretch of the Argut River as part of a project jointly funded by WWF, Altai Assistance Project, and The Altai Project to monitor the snow leopard population in the Argut River valley. During the expedition, Sergei Spitsyn, an employee of Altaisky Zapovednik, together with two Inegen residents, Aduchy Beletov and Viktor Samoylov, set up 18 Reconyx RapidFire and HyperFire camera traps along the middle Argut River in key habitat home to the largest population of snow leopard – on land between the mouths of the Shavla and Koir Rivers. Evidence of snow leopards has been found along the middle Argut from 2003-2009, and red maral deer and Siberian mountain goat population densities here are one of the highest in Southern Siberia. This landscape is immediately adjacent to the Argut Cluster of Sailyugem National Park, established for the protection of key groupings of argali and snow leopard in Russia in February 2010.

Earlier on 23-28th of August, during a UNDP/GEF-funded seminar on the use of camera traps for snow leopard monitoring, 7 cameras were set in place in potential snow leopard habitat along the lower Argut River valley. Over a month’s operation, the cameras collected over 1000 images of various resident species in Argut: bears, maral red deer, musk deer, foxes, Siberian mountain goats, Altai snowcocks, and even lynx. Despite this, the researchers’ cameras were unable to record images of snow leopard in this portion of the valley, easily accessible from local villages. No evidence of snow leopard was found along the lower stretch of the Argut River during expeditions led by Altaisky Zapovednik during the years of 2003-2008. Local residents report that snow leopards had been eliminated as early as the 1980s and 90s in this region; one can still find the remnants of old abatises, where poachers snares for the predator. No snares have been set in those places since 2000, but snow leopards have yet to return to these places, despite the excellent habitat and a wealth of prey: Siberian mountain goats, red maral deer, musk deer, and Altai snowcock. This is hope that with proper protection, snow leopard will return to these parts in the near future.

Despite the lack of snow leopard, the lower Argut basin is an ideal place to conduct ecotourism with the participation of local residents. The area is readily accessible and boasts beautiful scenery and rich wildlife. By inviting tourists to operate camera traps, visitors have the experience of hunting, but instead of pelt or horn trophies, they come away with unique pictures of living animals and birds and learn about the secret lives of Argut’s ancient residents. For all of these reasons, Argut is one of the most attractive places along the transboundary «Land of the Snow Leopard route, developed jointly by UNDP/GEF and WWF. The Land of the Snow Leopard project is actively engaging local residents in Altai, Tuva, and Western Mongolia in ecotourism development and rare species conservation in the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.

5-17 октября 2010 г. в рамках совместного проекта Всемирного фонда природы, Altai Assistance Program и Altai Project по организации мониторинга снежного барса в долине р. Аргут были проведены полевые работы в средней части бассейна этой реки. В ходе работ Сергей Спицын, сотрудник Алтайского заповедника, и два жителя с. Инегень – Адучы Белетов и Виктор Самойлов установили 18 автоматических камер Reconix RapidFire и HyperFire в средней части бассейна р. Аргут, в ключевых местообитаниях крупнейшей в России группировки ирбиса (территория между устьями рр. Шавла и Коир). В средней части Аргута следы снежного барса отмечались регулярно в 2003-2009 гг., а показатели плотности населения марала и сибирского горного козла здесь одни из самых высоких в Южной Сибири. Эта территория непосредственно прилегает к участку «Аргут» национального парка «Сайлюгемский», созданного для охраны ключевых группировок аргали и снежного барса в России в феврале 2010 г.
Напомним, что 23-28 августа в ходе семинара по использованию фото-ловушек для мониторинга ирбиса, организованного в рамках Проекта ПРООН/ГЭФ, семь автоматических камер были установлены в потенциальных местообитаниях этого вида в нижней части долины р. Аргут. Более чем за месяц работы камер было получено около 1000 снимков различных обитателей Аргута: медведя, маралов, кабарги, лисиц, сибирских горных козлов, алтайских уларов и даже рыси. Однако, обнаружить снежного барса в этой части долины, легко доступной из ближайших населенных пунктов, исследователям не удалось. Следы присутствия ирбиса в нижней части Аргута не были найдены и во время экспедиций Алтайского заповедника в 2003-2008 гг. По словам местных жителей, ирбис в этой части Аргута был истреблен еще в 80-90-е годы прошлого века, когда его отловом занимались чабаны, зимовавшие на стоянках на этой территории. До сих пор на острых горных гривах – излюбленных местообитаниях ирбиса – можно найти остатки старых засек, где браконьеры ставили петли на этого хищника. В 2000-2010 годах петли в этих местах уже не устанавливали, однако, снежный барс до сих пор не вернулся в эти места, не смотря на хорошие местообитания и обилие его объектов питания: сибирских горных козлов, маралов, кабарги и уларов. Сохраняется надежда, что при надлежащей охране ирбис вернется в эти места в течение ближайших лет.
Не смотря на отсутствие ирбиса – нижняя часть бассейна р. Аргут является идеальным местом для организации экотуристических туров силами местных жителей. Эти места легко доступны, имеют удивительные по красоте ландшафты и богатый животный мир. Использование автоматических фотокамер для работы с туристами позволит клиентам почувствовать себя настоящими охотниками, но вместо шкур и рогов животных получить уникальные снимки живых зверей и птиц, раскрыть тайны скрытных обитателей древнего Аргута. Все это делает Аргут одной из самых привлекательных частей трансграничного экотуристического маршрута «Земля Снежного Барса», разрабатываемого совместно Проектом ПРООН/ГЭФ и Всемирным фондом природы. Проект «Земля снежного барса» активно задействует местных жителей Алтая, Тувы и Западной Монголии в развитие экотуризма и охрану редких видов Алтае-Саянского экорегиона.