Former poachers are working to save Russia's snow leopards
After wildlife conservationists couldn't find a single leopard after a two-year search, they had to turn to the only people who know how to.
Snow leopards are notoriously hard to photograph. So much so, that in certain regions of the world, conservationists aren't even sure how many of these majestic animals still roam the wild.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy, which in 2010 wanted to learn more about the big cats, had to find out the hard way after they set up 20 motion-activated camera traps to find the elusive leopard. After a full six months, they had exactly zero pictures and it would take an entire two years for the first sighting.
That's when the organization understood they needed help. The Russian snow leopard lives in the remote high snow-covered mountainous Altai-Sayan Ecoregion in southern Siberia, an area twice the size of California. With only around 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild, finding them is close to impossible.
The only people who would be able to help the Conservancy in finding the leopards were the very people from whom they wanted to protect the animals - local hunters.
Hunting snow leopards is illegal in Russia, but in the harsh climate of Siberia, the few residents that live in the region had to turn to poaching to be able to feed their families. Snow leopard pelts can fetch more than 40,000 rubles ($620), while the average monthly income for hunters in Russia is only around 20,000 rubles ($300).
In 2013, Russian naturalist Sergei Spitsyn approached Mergen Markov, a local hunter who has been wandering the Altai Mountains since age five, hunting and herding sheep with his father.
"He came in and told me his [camera] project," Markov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). "Told me how it was supposed to work. He gave me a photo trap and a four-month trial period. We agreed on where I'd put the camera. So I went there and set it up."
Markov set up the camera in the cliffs at an elevation of 2,000 meters where he knew he would find leopards, and it worked. "I showed my first photos of a snow leopard to my father and he told me immediately that it was a pregnant female," Markov said. "A few months later, I put a camera at the same spot and caught a photo of the same female with two kittens. I got a few more photos of them and named them Batyr and Argut."
Markov, once a poacher, works full time for the conservationists now and has 10 cameras monitoring three snow leopards. "I travel constantly, through the taiga and along the cliffs. I visit each camera once a month. I have known this whole region since I was a child,” he said.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) began working with other local residents in 2015 to protect endangered wildlife. Under an agreement with the village, the residents removed poaching traps and agreed to never set anymore. The village would be paid 40,000 rubles at the end of the year if a photo trap captured the image of a snow leopard in the region.
WWF also employs the residents to work as guides for other projects and rents horses from them so that they do not need the income from poaching anymore.
It was an easy transition for most to make, Denis Malikov, a scientific researcher at Sailyugemsky Park told RFE/RL. "You shouldn't think that people here just started worrying about preserving wildlife when scientists arrived. For people in Altai, both the snow leopard and the argali mountain sheep are sacred animals."
Today, there are far fewer poachers but just one poacher can set 50 to 200 traps and leopards still get caught in traps set for other animals, so Markov says he has to stay vigilant. The team has recently reduced the number of snares from 800 to around 200, according to the Snow Leopard Conservancy.
A WWF census last winter found a total of 61 snow leopards in the region – including 23 cubs. The number of snow leopards has been rising since WWF partnered with the Russian government three years ago to monitor them. Changes in climate, loss of habitat and sources of food remain threats and keeps the big cats on the endangered list.
“If we protect the snow leopard in the Argut area, then their population might recover to sustainable levels within 10 years," Spitsyn said. "Because this is the home of the largest concentration of Siberian mountain goats, which is the snow leopard's preferred prey."
Swapping guns for cameras has made a big difference in the lives of these former poachers, the village, and the Russian snow leopards. “My father doesn't hunt anymore, but I'm still a hunter. Just a different kind of hunter. I try to help everyone who is trying to protect the snow leopard," Markov proudly added.