While I’m deep in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, walking remote and treacherous valley paths searching for signs of snow leopard, (‘Irbis’ in the local Altai language) here’s a bit more info about this spectacular location.
UNESCO, (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) recognises this area as special and has inscribed the Golden Mountains of Altai on the World Heritage List.
The Altai Mountains lie at the edge of 4 countries – a beautiful but stark region where Kazakhstan, China, Russia and Mongolia meet. According to UNESCO, the Altai is home to 3,726 registered plant species and 680 animal species. The few remaining snow leopards feed on Ibex or wild mountain goat that graze in the lush green meadows.
The herder communities knew snow leopards centuries ago as can be seen by petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings found here. But today most people have never seen one.
Russia’s snow leopard population is estimated at only 150–200, so every animal is important. Conservation projects focus on making the live animal more valuable to the local communities than income from body parts like pelts and bones. But that’s difficult when an Altai shepherd earns about 1,600-3,100 Rubles (US$50-100) per month.
Some of the local people in the Argut Valley of Altai took part in a snow leopard survey in 2007, tracking and recording pugmarks, feces and other signs. International researchers are using herder and villager local knowledge and together work to protect the 5 or so cats found. The Russian government is also taking a role with the establishment of Sailugemsky National Park (80,000 hectares), located in the Argut River basin in February 2010.
I’ll be back from the Altai in a week, so check out my Altai diary to read if we found snow leopards.