Can the camera traps protect the Russian snow leopards for the rest of their lives?
The population of the Russian snow leopards is fast declining due to non-stop poaching until the World Wildlife Fund established the feline’s conservation in 2015. From then on, the big cats’ number gradually increased. Approximately, 221 to 450 snow leopards are killed every year for trade to compensate for losses in livestock.
Threats to snow leopards in Russia
During the 1990s, poverty and economic disturbance pushed some locals to poach snow leopards for its hide. However, poachers are sentenced to 7 years in prison if caught. Snares intended for musk deers also endangered the population of snow leopards in Russia. Most often than not, Rangers discover dozens of snares in the park’s Argut river valley.
Another possible threat to Russian snow leopards is climate change. According to some resident yak and sheepherders, climate change makes the weather in the mountains more unpredictable. The melting of the permafrost soil inflicts ungulates such as cattle and deers with diseases like scabies and anthrax. It was found out that a number of snow leopards died of scabies.
From big cat slayers to big cat lovers
Russian snow leopards poachers have turned to big cat lovers. Poachers were so skillful in tracking and hunting these animals that the WWF decided to hire and use them to help monitor the predator’s movement and population instead.
Since the launching of the program, the population of the Russian snow leopard stabilized. In certain regions, the number has quite improved. In 2017, the mammal was reclassified from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”
This animal lives in the isolated Altai mountains and is natively called the “ghost of the mountains”. Altai people consider the animal as holy and the keeper of the ancestral spirits that they glorify. You can even find the snow leopard in one of Princess of Ukok’s tattoos. The Princess of Ukok was a 2,400-year-old aristocrat woman preserved in ice in her tomb in the mountains of Altai.
With the Russian snow leopard always on the move, they are hard to find and catch. That is the reason why hunters need to set up cameras to track its every move.
Sailugemsky National Park assistant director Denis Malikov said:
“When camera traps appeared recently it was a huge boost because scientists got their hands not just on footprints but on photographs of the leopard itself, so we can identify individuals and their area of distribution.”
The camera traps enable researchers to distinguish individual Russian snow leopards through its special pattern of rosettes, or brown and black spots. These are visible on each mammal’s thick covering of grey, white, or pale tan fur.
In 2010, American leopard expert Rodney Jackson brought the first modern camera traps in Altai. From then on, the WWF regularly donates them to researchers and local parks. Over 180 camera traps are now monitoring the leopards and other wildlife in the Altai and Sayan mountains. Another monitored animal is the argali mountain sheep with magnificent curved horns and is threatened because of poaching. By the end of the year, 50 more camera traps are intended to get installed.
Oftentimes, the Russian snow leopards are recorded marking their territory. They usually carve out small holes and spray them with their urine. They can also be identified by analyzing the DNA excreted in urine. Valery Orgunov, lead tracker and wolf hunter, found small droppings in the snow near leopard prints.
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