Snow Leopard Foundation

The snow leopard, or Ak Bars as it is called in Turkic vernaculars, has long held a mystical and majestic aura in many cultures of Eurasia for centuries.

The creature’s enigmatic reputation has only increased over the years, owing to its harsh, mountainous habitat that is often inaccessible to humans, alongside dwindling numbers and the looming threat of extinction. These magnificent animals are the apex predators in the Central Asian mountains and, within the Panthera genus, they are among the least known and least photographed big cats.

Photo by Alexander Garmaev

Fortunately, the advances of modern technology have significantly expanded our knowledge of snow leopards. We are continually improving our knowledge of the lives of these magnificent animals. In Russia, snow leopards are the subject of research of several nature conservation organisations. One such organisation is the Snow Leopard Foundation. Dmitry Germanovich Medvedev, the organisation’s founder and President, is one of the preeminent snow leopard researchers in Russia and the wider world. In the autumn of 1980, Dmitry spotted the first tracks of snow leopards in Eastern Sayan, where it was not yet known to reside. This groundbreaking discovery prompted further research in this area over the following years, where direct evidence emerged of the snow leopard’s prey, thereby proving the big cat’s presence in the area.

The main objective of the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF) is to conduct further research into the animal’s livelihood while helping preserve the existing population.

Dmitry Germanovich underlined this point: “How can we preserve something if we do not fully understand it? The more we know about snow leopards, the easier it will be to preserve them and their habitats. Thanks to the foundation, we have made several groundbreaking discoveries, for example where their habitats are located, which will help us to continue supporting this magnificent animal going forward.”

This year, SLF member Aleksandr Kuksin successfully defended the first thesis on snow leopards in Russia. This was only the fifth such thesis ever to be produced at a global level, another stark reminder how little academic research has gone into these animals.

The foundation also researches other rare species who live in snow leopard habitats, such as the Siberian ibex, Altai snowcock, manul and many others. Some of them, such as the Kodar snow sheep, are as rare as snow leopards, and the foundation has devised a rehabilitation project for this rare bighorn animal of Olkhon island.

Dimka snow leopard

Traced since 2012 till present time © Snow Leopard Foundation

Tunka range

Dimka snow leopard

Looking for the breakfast

6:44 AM

Irbis «Bator»

East Sayan, Munku-Sardyk

Scientific Photo Shoot

SLF members and local volunteers travel to the mountains once or twice a month and set up their primary snow leopard equipment — camera traps. These are small, palm-sized hidden cameras that are camouflaged into the landscape. The traps are equipped with motion sensors and start filming only when the animal walks into the frame. They can even film at night thanks to their infrared sensors. The researchers leave the traps for several months, sometimes even years, and collect them in future expeditions. The challenge is obtaining reliable and consistent forms of data. For example, some cameras are damaged by weather or wildlife and are rendered unusable. This unfortunately occurred in September 2019, when researchers traversed the Kitoy range to check on their camera traps installed in the summer of 2016. Alas, the traps appeared to have been destroyed by a nosy bear.

A tribe of Siberian ibexes with their offspring

Great Sayan Ridge

© Snow Leopard Foundation

However, if the cameras are lucky to capture snow leopards in their natural habitat, the resulting footage is invaluable. In May 2019, the research conducted in Mönkh Saridag gave us unique footage of a female snow leopard nursing her kitten. These materials helped the researchers develop an accurate and detailed understanding of snow leopard hunting and feeding cycles. The cameras at Tunka range have also recently caught extraordinary footage of the snow leopards, helping us expand the foundation’s research and offer further insights into the animals.

Furthermore, the SLF have similarly observed the snow leopard’s prey, the ibex, through these cameras. Thanks to footage captured by the camera traps, researchers could now accurately track the snow leopards’ movements and behaviours, thereby increasing existing knowledge of the animal.

The Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF) is a Non-Governmental Organisation. Its sources of income are derived from merchandise sales, charitable donations, partnerships and sponsorships. One such sponsor is gold producer Nordgold. This funding provides grants for vital research in important areas including the Sayan mountain range in Asia. For example, the SLF recently funded an expedition to Mönkh Saridag, the highest mountain in the Sayan Mountains. A camera trap set in that area captured extraordinary footage of four snow leopards in the same location, including a female, a male and two kittens.

Modern zoologists often rely on GPS beacons while conducting their research. It is extremely challenging to use this technology to track snow leopards mainly due to their isolated habitats and lifestyles. Indeed, the only successful efforts to achieve this have been in Mongolia and the Sayano-Shushenski Nature Reserve in Russia. The SLF were delighted to successfully track a female snow leopard, significantly enhancing our knowledge of their habitat and uncovering several remarkable facts about the animal. For example, the researchers found that a habitat can be up to 800 square kilometres large, significantly greater than previously thought. The SLF also discovered snow leopards can travel up to 600 kilometres away from their usual habitat.

Photographer Andrei Pisarev of the Snow Leopard Foundation rests for the evening with Mönkh Saridag (3491 m), the highest peak of Eastern Sayan, in the background.

© Snow Leopard Foundation

Expedition camp of the foundation and volunteer team of the Save the Snow Leopard Together project, 2019

© Snow Leopard Foundation

The sheer vastness of the landscapes in question presents the main challenge for researchers. Traversing such conditions during the expeditions for snow leopards is often lengthy and exhausting. Researchers will typically use UAZ vehicles to reach these settlements nearest to the habitat itself, then travel to the habitat by foot. This is a challenging journey, involving marching many kilometers with heavy backpacks, navigating mountainous rivers in inflatable rafts, crossing dense forests, and sleeping outside. The off-road vehicles are often provided by volunteers and allow the research team to go as deep as possible. In the summer months, horse transportation is often used instead.

Another challenge is wildlife, especially bears. Therefore, most of the SLF staff are fully trained hunting experts capable of repelling the threatening wildlife.


Poachers and Tourists

Due to their rarity and beauty, snow leopards are unfortunately the inevitable target of poachers. Snow leopards have a protected status worldwide, yet there is still a disproportionately high human-caused death rate for the animal.

Dmitry Germanovich summarised the problem: “Poachers represent an existential threat to the snow leopard. Over the past 30-35 years, dozens of snow leopards have been slaughtered by poachers in their habitats, particularly across the mountainous areas of Buryatia, Tofalaria and Transbaikal. Harrowing pieces of evidence have been uncovered, including legs, skulls and other ‘trophy’ remains being left nailed to poacher huts. The SFL is firmly committed to improving the habitats and livelihoods of the snow leopard, while helping ward off the threat of poachers.” Dmitry Germanovich.

In addition, snow leopards often die in traps set for other animals that can only be hunted in certain months. Many residents hunt the Siberian musk deer, a well-known ungulate found primarily in Asia that produces a highly valued musk. As a result, hunters attempt to capture these animals and have been known to set up to 5000 traps per season, often failing to remove them responsibly. Snow leopards are often caught in these traps, with the remains being found years later.

© Snow Leopard Foundation

Life in Sayan: researchers, rare species and majestic nature.

© Snow Leopard Foundation
Snow Leopard Foundation

Snow leopards are extremely rare, however, they are fortunately not yet verging on extinction. They predominantly reside in multiple mountain ranges, including the Himalayas, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and others. There are approximately 30 snow leopards located in Eastern Sayan, and approximately 20 in Buryatia. Local residents are often supportive of SLF’s work which is often expressed through generous donations, for example the SLF sightseeing trails in Mongolia has proved very popular with the local population and tourists travelling from a distance. There is not an equivalent trail in Russia so far, but the SLF is aiming to build new research stations which can provide researchers and tourists the opportunity to study and see the big cats. Sponsorship has come from Nordgold and others.

Snow Leopard Foundation