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Snow leopard features at Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia

Snow Leopard mascot Sochi

The snow leopard mascot, one of three at the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia, February 2014.

Next Month the 2014 Winter Olympics begin in the Russian city of Sochi and one of Russia’s most endangered predators, the snow leopard, will feature as a mascot.

But the snow leopard does not live anywhere near Sochi, which is in southern Russia on the Black Sea at the western edge of the Caucasus Mountains. Its  native habitat is over 4000 km  away, in the remote mountains of the Altai Region in Siberia.

Sadly Russia’s snow leopards have been decreasing rapidly in numbers due to illegal poaching for the last 20 years. But scientists and conservationists have been working in the remote Altai to bring the cat numbers back.

Local herder family in their yurt

Local herder family in their yurt in the Altai. Photo by Sibylle Noras

“It’s just fantastic that the snow leopard is being featured as the mascot of the Sochi Olympics. The creature does need all the attention it can get. It is extremely endangered throughout its range,” said Dr. James P. Gibbs, a conservation biologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., who has been involved in snow leopard research and conservation efforts in Russia for the last five years.

In a big collaborative effort, Gibbs works with Sergei Spitsyn of the Russian Protected Areas system, Mikhail Paltsyn of WWF-Russia and Jennifer Caster of The Altai Project.

“Five years ago, I would’ve said it’s hopeless but now we’re finding ways to control poaching and provide economic opportunities for desperately poor local herders as alternatives to poaching,” said Gibbs.

“Poachers target snow leopards because their luxurious pelts can be sold to middlemen and ultimately fetch thousands of dollars in big cities such as Moscow and Beijing. While traditional anti-poaching methods such as patrols and snare removal are still in use, part of the solution to the poaching problem is creating economic development opportunities for poor herders so they have options other than poaching.

One of the herder yurts we visited.

Herders move across the steppes of Siberia and over the Altai mountains with their families and domestic sheep and goats. They share snow leopard habitat in this part of Russia. Photo by Sibylle Noras.

“If we can create opportunities for local women to sell their handicrafts, they won’t have to rely on their husbands’ poaching to pay school and medical fees for their children.

“We have to find a way to make snow leopards worth more alive than dead to local people. We all want them; they’re wonderful creatures but we don’t bear the cost of living with them, so finding a way for local people to live with them without paying the costs is the challenge.”

Read more about the search for Russia’s last snow leopards in the Altai.

More information on Russia’s snow leopards, their habitat and research and conservation efforts.


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