In an ironic twist of fate, the ex-poachers who once hunted snow leopards are now being recruited to protect them. The BBC reports that rather than try to discourage Russian hunters from poaching the elusive big cats, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is instead recruiting them as researchers. The ex-poachers are helping to monitor snow leopard populations and movements.
The program was launched in 2015. Since then, snow leopard populations in the country have stabilized and even improved in certain areas. This trend likely affected the reclassification of snow leopards from “endangered” in 2017.
WWF said in a statement:
“Last winter, a WWF census found a total of 61 snow leopards in Russia’s Altai-Sayan Ecoregion, a remote landscape where high, snowy mountain ranges offer a last refuge for this rare feline. Surveying a larger area than ever before, experts used images from camera traps, pugmarks (or pawprints), and genetic analysis to identify 38 adult snow leopards and 23 cubs throughout their home range—a positive sign that the animals are breeding.”
Though the snow leopard’s numbers have been rebounding, the big cat still needs support. Researchers estimate that fewer than 7,000 live in the wild. They continue to face many threats, all of which are expected to intensify due to climate change.
“Populations of Siberian Ibex—important prey for snow leopards—are in sharp decline everywhere,” said senior coordinator Alexander Karnaukhov from WWF. “Another problem is widespread poaching. Poachers commonly set snare wire traps to catch other animals, which can ensnare snow leopards.”
“Still,” he added, “there is positive news. Last year, for the first time ever, we found a female snow leopard and her two cubs in the Ukok Plateau. This year, the same female, named Yuzhanka, and two of her cubs were captured on camera. They had survived through the severe winter of this year and are doing well. Another new male snow leopard, likely the father of Yuzhanka’s cubs, was also caught on camera.”
The ex-poachers/activists have their work cut out for them. As researchers, they will brave steep peaks and harsh, snowy conditions. These conditions will be endured for months on end to collect data. In some cases, they will walk and ski hundreds of miles during one expedition. It might be demanding, but it is important work. According to Karnaukhov, an accurate count of the world’s snow leopard populations are essential to protect the species in the long-term.
WWF is now planning on implementing similar initiatives elsewhere, specifically in the countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. “We’ll also be able to scale up anti-poaching initiatives, making sure that these “ghosts of the mountain” can live in harmony with local people and communities,” said the organization.
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