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Scientists prove, snow leopards dont' inhabit the Central Sayan ridge

12 september 2022
The summer expedition resolved a long-standing dispute between biologists: camera traps did not record a single passage of a rare feline species

During an expedition to Tofalaria from July 12 to August 20, biologists from Irkutsk Asia-Irbis NGO confirmed the absence of a snow leopard in the Central Sayan, despite landscapes suitable for snow leopard habitat. The expedition was supported by: WWF and the World Around You Foundation of the Siberian Wellness company.

Expedition trackin snow leopard
(c) WWF / Sergey Malykh
“Biologists have been arguing for a long time whether the snow leopard lives in Tofalaria or not. Tofalaria is the site, where the ridges of the Eastern and Western Sayan join each other with the Udinsky and Ergak-Targak-Taiga ridges. It is here where the border between the Irkutsk region and the Republic of Tyva passes along the watershed. This territory is sometimes called the Central Sayan. Snow leopard surveys were not carried out here until 2017, when our group first installed camera traps here. Unfortunately, today, after checking the camera traps, we say with confidence: there are no snow leopards in Tofalaria. None of the camera traps installed in 2017 recorded the presence of this feline species,” says Sergey Malykh, expedition leader, member of the Asia-Irbis NGO.

Tofalaria on the border of the Irkutsk region and the Republic of Tuva for many years remained a blank spot on the map of snow leopard habitats. In 2012, scientists found out that a resident of the Nizhneudinsky district of the Irkutsk region found a snow leopard strangled with a wire poacher's snare. This became a sensation - rare predators in the region have not been recorded for decades. The first expedition to install camera traps on a snow leopard took place in 2017 with the support of WWF and  the World Around You Foundation.

Field survey in Tyva Republic
(c) WWF / Sergey Malykh
“The summer expedition dispelled doubts and assumptions. There is no snow leopard in the Central Sayan. Although there are suitable habitats in Tofalaria, snow leopard rarely visits the territory. Snow leopards also do not come from the Tyva Republic, moreover there is little prey for the snow leopard everywhere. The results of the expedition prove that urgent measures are needed to save snow leopard groups in Buryatia,” says Alexander Karnaukhov, Senior Project Coordinator of the WWF representative office in the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.
Territory of Tofalaria
(c) WWF / Sergey Malykh

The expedition along Tofalaria went on in difficult conditions for a month and a half. Hundreds of kilometers on horseback through the deserted taiga, often only along animal trails, 18 days on foot with backpacks in the mountains, tens of kilometers on water, meeting bears, but practically not meeting people.

Of the six camera traps, only one survived, the rest were broken by brown bears, the remains of four cameras were found nearby. Flash memory cards are read only by three cameras, but the several thousands of captured images allow us to draw reliable conclusions.

Checking camera-traps set earlier
(c) WWF / Sergey Malykh

According to the WWF experts, there are at least six snow leopards in Buryatia, including two cubs of the female Kucheryavaya. For comparison: during the last count of the snow leopard in 2020, the presence of 5 snow leopards was confirmed in Buryatia, but later two more cubs were recorded. In 2018, the number was estimated at 12 individuals, including four cubs.

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