The snow leopard scented the herd of Siberian ibex on the strong wind blasting over the ridgeline at more than 11,000 feet, high in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, on Russia’s remote border with Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan. With its gray coat and black spots, the big cat was nearly invisible against the rock of this arid landscape. It padded confidently toward its quarry through deep snow on wide, insulated feet, watchfully moving down an eroded draw above the frozen Chaganburgazy River.
Just above the light blue ice of the river, the cat stopped. This was a favorite spot. In the hot months, a spring ran here, feeding the braided waters of the river and attracting game. But its prey had moved on and were now slowly foraging up a trail clearly carved into a peak on the other side of the windswept valley.
The snow leopard leapt down the slope and bounded over to a rusty red rock standing near the frozen watering hole. It circled it, sniffed for other snow leopards, and clawed four parallel white lines. Then it turned back towards the ibex.
“Here you can see the small scratch marks of the snow leopard,” says Alexander Karnaukhov, a biologist and snow leopard specialist with the World Wildlife Fund Russia, dragging his fingers over the rock in the Sailyugem National Park. “This is how he makes it clear to other snow leopards that he lives here,” says Karnaukhov, who goes by Sasha. (Watch skiers come face-to-face with a snow leopard.)
Karnaukhov looked up from the rock and examined the landscape with a trained eye, seeing it from the point of view of the endangered cat; describing the animal’s movements from its tracks.
“Right at this spot, we're going to put up a camera trap,” he says, “and get a better idea of who lives here.”
Denis Malikov, a biologist and assistant director of the national park, pulled out a GPS unit and entered yet another data point for Russia’s first ever full-range snow leopard census.
Just above the rock, Karnaukhov found snow leopard scat. Pulling out a small baggie, he picked it up and pocketed it. He will send this and other samples to Moscow for DNA analysis.
Using this combination of genetic material and camera traps, which biologists use to laboriously identify individual cats by their unique spot patterns, the Russian biologists hope to get a fuller understanding of the world’s northern-most group of the endangered predator. Their findings will help clarify global numbers—an integral part of a heated debate among scientists that will determine whether the cats remain on the endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), or whether they are moved to being only “threatened.”
Coming back down the slope, the two scientists debated where they will put the trap, a camouflaged, weatherproof plastic box crammed with camera, motion sensor, memory card, insulation, and enough AA batteries for a couple of months. Too high up the hill and they feared clouds and shadows would trigger a picture, filling the memory card with pretty, but useless, landscapes. Too low and they worried a bush might obscure shots of the cat. In a few days, Malikov would make the bone-jarring, two-hour drive on his ATV back up this remote, rocky riverbed, pound a stake into the frozen ground, and set up the trap. Then they have to wait.
Counting Russian Leopards
Currently, in Russia, it is thought that there are between 70 and 90 snow leopards, or Panthera uncia, making up only one to two percent of the worldwide population. In the partial range survey carried out in 2016, researchers confirmed 41 snow leopards and eight litters of kittens, totaling 19 young, says Karnaukhov. This year they hope to find out how many survived. More importantly they are surveying the entire range—including the Republic of Altai, Buryatia, and Tyva (commonly called Tuva)—some of the most remote lands in Russia, all bordering Mongolia.
Fortunately for scientists like Karnaukhov and Malikov, the cats are “very conservative,” frequently using the same “linear landmarks”—game trails, riverbeds, and ridgelines through the mountains. Also, many cats will use the same marking stone—like the one with the claw marks on it.
“It’s like nature’s Facebook,” says Karnaukhov. As the cats scratch, rub against, and spray urine on cliffs and exposed rock they communicate with one another. That makes it easier for scientists to collect photographs and videos of the animals, allowing them to identify and count the snow leopards.
And the Sailyugem National Park is, more and more, a good place to go looking for the predator. “It’s like the Russian Africa,” says Mikhail Paltsyn, a Russian biologist and one of the founders of the park, currently working on his PhD at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. “It’s easy to see 300 ibex just from one spot,” he says. “It's a very bad day if you haven't seen a hundred ibex in a day.”
Indeed, driving up the dry, frozen, windswept valleys of the park in Soviet jeeps past the small log cabins of the impoverished shepherds who live here year around, it is common to see big herds of Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), feeding on the grasses high in the hills and mountains. This ibex is the longest and heaviest wild goat, with great, upward arcing horns. Also common is the argali (Ovis ammon ammon), the giant cousin of the American bighorn sheep. It is the largest of all sheep, weighing as much as 328 pounds, with some sets of horns weighing up to 75 pounds.
The ibex is the favorite prey of the snow leopard, with a population of around 4,000 to 5,000 in the park. Paltsyn says a prey base of this size could naturally support a population of around 30 to 40 snow leopards. But from 2004 to 2012 there were only between two and five snow leopards left in the Argut River watershed, which includes the national park, and that not a single cat was found in the Sailyugem.
Today there are no less than 15 snow leopards in the watershed, “so it seems the population is slowly restoring,” says Paltsyn. “I’m very optimistic about the future,” he says, “because right now we have a very good level of protection.”
“They’re more than rare, they’re cryptic,” says Peter Zahler, the regional director for Asia for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Even today, little is known about snow leopards because they occur at such low densities and live in “some of the most difficult terrain imaginable,” he says. It is not for nothing that the snow leopard is known as the ghost of the mountains. The animal’s home range reads like a list of fairytale lands beyond the edge of the known world. Living as high as 19,000 feet, they are restricted to the high mountains of the Altai, Tian Shan, Kun Lun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakorum, and Himalaya ranges.
But even if Paltsyn is optimistic, the snow leopard still faces an uphill battle for survival. In Russia the main threat is poaching of musk deer, whose glands are used for traditional medicine in China and Korea. One kilo of granulated musk can fetch around $45,000 on the international market, and it takes about 40 deer to make a kilo. Hunters use wire snares set in the undergrowth to catch and strangle the deer. Snow leopards die as “by-catch”—just as dolphins die when tuna are netted—as they follow game trails at the lower elevations.
The intersection of musk deer and snow leopard habitats “leads to a dramatic erosion of the population of the snow leopard, and, in some places, to its almost complete extermination,” says Karnaukhov. Indeed, over the past two years the population of snow leopards at a nature reserve 200 miles northeast of the park dropped from eight or nine to just one, after the new reserve director fired all the rangers hired to remove snares.
“If you give up, the area will be covered in snares again,” says Paltsyn, “and snares very easily kill snow leopards.” (More snow leopards poached, despite bold plan.)
Besides snaring, snow leopards in Russia face the same problems they face everywhere, though some are of a particularly Russian flavor. At one point an oligarch was flying helicopters full of government officials and rich businessmen into the park to hunt argali and Siberian ibex. The hunting was small scale, but, when combined with global challenges like habitat loss, climate change, a drop in prey numbers due to livestock overgrazing, and retaliatory killings by ranchers protecting those herds, snow leopards face serious challenges across their 11 range countries. The big cat was placed on the endangered species list by the IUCN in 1972.
Changing the Animal’s Status?
Currently, the IUCN is in the middle of an already multi-year process to reassess the status of the snow leopard, even though none of these threats have been eliminated. Indeed, not only are they are not going away, climate change could eliminate up to 30 percent of the snow leopard’s territory in the Himalaya alone over the coming decades, putting this apex predator in the same category as the polar bear in terms of species that will dramatically lose habitat due to a warming world.
The IUCN assessment team is recommending downlisting the big cat. Others think that continuing and new threats, combined with a lack of accurate data on snow leopard numbers, means that the animal should retain its current classification. Those who support not reclassifying the cat recommend waiting until new technology, like camera traps, is able to provide a clearer answer on population size.
To many, this is the crux of the argument. The prevailing range of global estimates varies between around 3,900 and 7,500 animals. But a book published in June last year—the first comprehensive scientific volume on the animal, with around 200 scientists contributing—caused a firestorm when contributors to one chapter claimed there may be between 4,678 and 8,745 cats in just 44 percent of their global range. The implication being that there may be up to twice as many in the total range.
Zahler, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, contributed to the chapter with the new numbers. He says snow leopard researchers have a good understanding of the range, but not of how many live in that territory.
“Within that area we have a pretty good sense of where we know a lot and where we know a little and where we know almost nothing at all,” he says.
Currently, the high and low estimates differ by a factor of nearly two. “So, they’re not terribly accurate, regardless of which one you think is best,” he says. “We're still, to a large extent, in the infancy of understanding them.”
But he feels that the broad application of camera traps, satellite collars, pattern recognition software, and other technology will soon begin to fill in the gaps. “It's very difficult to extrapolate from signs as to whether you're looking at one snow leopard or five,” he says.
If its status changes, the stakes for the future of the animal could be significant. Gustaf Samelius, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the assistant director of science at the Snow Leopard Trust, says delisting could mean “governments are not going to put any money towards conservation of snow leopards.”
He thinks those who put together the chapter with the higher numbers were “a little uncritical” in their use of expert “guesstimates” and sign tallies. Already, colleagues in Pakistan have told him that their government is shifting money away from snow leopard conservation programs, since numbers appear to be on the rise.
And because of the recent improvements in technology, Samelius believes, “it’s not that the numbers have increased, it's just that our tools are getting better at detecting them.”
Zahler agrees. “I want to be very clear: we don't really know how many snow leopards there are or what the real trend is,” he says. “Snow leopards are probably declining. They just seem to be declining less rapidly than a lot of the other big cats.”
Hope for the Future?
Even if the experts don’t agree on snow leopard numbers, they all agree that the animals still face significant threats. “The scary thing is that the threats are increasing,” says Samelius. Zahler agrees: “The last thing I would want is for people to think that there's a few thousand more snow leopards than we thought, so we don't need to do anything.”
The Soviet jeep slid over the smooth ice of the river and then abruptly continued on its jouncing journey over large river stones, up the valley. At a newly built trailhead, half covered in drifted snow, the jeeps stopped. The scientists and a couple scouts got out. More than 800 feet above us, the wind howled over a bald ridge, dropping the temperature to -40F. A ranger had found a likely spot for a trap, with a rock next to a game trail. The bottom of the hill was already above 6,500 feet. We started up through loose scree and wind-hardened snow.
For two years, when they started putting up camera traps in the area in 2010, Karnaukhov says they saw no snow leopards. Then they started to appear. This was possibly due to an increase in population, but also because the team became more experienced in putting the cameras up, in the right places.
In the wind, the small team shouted, even at close range. The chosen rock would not work. The trap would face the sunrise and sunset and that might trigger the camera. They chose another rock. Tethering the camera to a big stone, they propped it up and wedged small stones around it. Then they tilted it forward so it aimed down at the game trail.
The valley stretched away into the distance, fading into a haze of dust and blown snow. But, besides getting better at counting, the population has, indeed, grown. “The situation is now getting better,” says Karnaukhov. “And this gives us hope that the population as a whole across Russia will recover.”