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First photo of snow leopard in Tuva, Russia in 2010. Photo by A.Kuksin

In July 2010 I participated in an exciting snow leopard research trip in the Altai mountains. Read my Diary of “The search for Russia’s last snow leopards.”

Most people are surprised to hear that Russia has snow leopards. Estimates are around 150-200 snow leopards left but like all other snow leopard countries the figure may be a lot less because the research is some years old.

Snow leopard habitat in Russia is in the southern most part of the country, in the Altai Republic and the Republic of Tuva. The Altai Republic lies at the very heart of Asia, where Siberia meets Kazakhstan and Mongolia. In July 2010 I saw first hand how remote, rugged and beautiful this area, home to some of Russia’s last remaining snow leopards, really is. You can read my diary on The Search for Russia’s last snow leopards.

Remote Altai Mountains in Russia. Photo by Sibylle.

Remote Altai Mountains in Russia. Searching for Russia's last snow leopards. Photo by Sibylle.

In Altai there is widespread poverty and unemployment, which has sadly forced some local people to poaching wildlife, often endangered animals like the snow leopard. Poaching has been so rampant that some experts say the population has decreased by half, from 40 snow leopards in the late 1990’s to 10 to 15 today.

But it is not only unemployed local people poaching snow leopards. In early January 2009, a fatal helicopter crash in the Altai Mountains was captured on mobile phone cameras and the images spread throughout Russian and overseas media. It was found that some government officials had been using helicopters to shoot argali (the endangered wild sheep that is one of the key prey species of the snow leopard).

There are also snow leopards in the Republic of Tuva in Russia. Tuva is in the far south of Siberia with mountains covering 80% of the small republic.

In early 2010 the first ever photos of snow leopards were taken in Tuva. Research is being done by members of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of Russia. On the Tsagan-Shibetu ridge WWF found 14 tracks of snow leopard and many scat specimens which were collected for DNA analysis. It’s estimated that there may be between 17 and 20 snow leopards in this part of Russia living near the border of Mongolia. Read more about snow leopards in Russia.