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Former poacher now saving snow leopards

A snow leopard caught on camera trap in Altai

A snow leopard walks the mountains of Altai. The cats are now helped by local conservationist Mergen Markov. (Photo Altai Project.)

One of the most heartening things for all of us in wildlife conservation is to hear this story. A young man spends years as a poacher, catching animals to secure his family’s income but now turns his skills to helping these same endangered animals.

The Altai Project is a conservation group saving snow leopards in the magnificent Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. Now they have such a snow leopard protector, Mergen Markov, who was recently honoured with a Disney Conservation Hero Award from Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF). This award recognises citizens for their efforts to save wildlife, protect habitats and educate their local communities.

This is Mergen’s story.

An indigenous Altaian livestock herder and hunter, Mergen was initially approached by Altaisky State Nature Reserve’s senior scientist, Sergei Spitsyn. Coming from a long line of hunters, the risk of leaving poaching was great for Mergen, who relied on the illicit income for his family’s livelihood.

Remote Altai Mountains in Russia. Photo by Sibylle Noras

Remote Altai Mountains home to snow leopards. (Photo by Sibylle Noras.)

Sergei explained the incentive program to Mergen, and he cautiously agreed to be its first participant. Putting aside his snare-traps for camera-traps and hoping to secure images of new snow leopards, it was not long before he had captured incredible images of two snow leopard kittens. Nearly a year later, he is now a valued member of the patrol team and a true conservation hero! When he isn’t in the field, he’s talking to other herders and hunters about the importance of protecting wildlife and the dangers of poaching.

All these stories show one thing. If local people are able to support their families by protecting wildlife they are all willing to do it. When programs like the Altai project offer alternative livelihoods people are able to become stewards and protectors. We congratulate Mergen and our Altai Project colleagues for this wonderful work. We hope you can help by supporting their snow leopard conservation by donating here.

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