Potential leopard habitats were studied in Dagestan
The landscape and nature of the Republic of Dagestan can be safely
called a suitable place for the life of Persian leopards.Since 2005, when
WWF-Russia began developing a Leopard Reintroduction Program in the Caucasus
together with the Insitute of Ecology and Evolution scientists
Dagestan considered as one of the most suitable places of reintroduction
of the big cats in the Russian Caucasus.
"Today, leopards successfully reintroduced in the territory of the Western Caucasus and the Republic of North Ossetia, where they were released in 2016 and 2018. However, experts are also looking at other natural areas for future releases where spotted predators have historically lived. Dagestan is potentially such a place." - explains Valeriy Shmunk, Director of Russian Caucasus Ecoregional Office WWF-Russia.
Yuriy Yarovenko, a leading researcher at the Caspian Institute of Biological Resources of the Dagestan Research Center, with the support of WWF-Russia is working in the Republic on monitoring and field survey natural territories. The aim of the work is to find traces of the presence of Persian leopards and analyze the conditions for their potential release in this territory. Various tools are used for this purpose: a network of camera traps, image analysis, field researches, and communication with the locals.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which had a very strong impact on the life in Dagestan, made serious adjustments to the work of experts in 2020. Only after the quarantine was cancelled, the work was continued.
One of the important tools in this work are camera traps. They allow you
not only to check information about the presence of leopards in a particular
area but also to assess the prey base for potential predator habitat. For
example, the analysis of images from traps in the Hunzakhskiy Natural Park
showed the presence of a sufficient number of the prey species: bezoar goats,
wild boars, European roe deer, badgers, foxes, hares, squirrels, as well as
birds – Caucasian grouse and woodcock.
The Hunzakhskiy Natural Park was created with the support of WWF-Russia in 2017. It is a kind of natural refugium for large mammals, as well as an ecological corridor for the leopard. Over the past 2-3 years, poaching in this area has significantly decreased due to the establishment of the Natural Park and rangers began to note the presence of a brown bear on the territory, which was previously almost not found here. Also, a small group of wild, or bezoar goats — the most important object of leopard hunting in this region – feels safe in "Hunzakhskiy".
In addition, the analysis of images of camera
traps installed on the territory of the Federal Sanctuary
"Tlyaratinskiy" was carried out, because earlier locals had reported
that they had observed leopards on the site in the upstream of the Pejiasab
river. Unfortunately, the leopard has never been caught for 3 years by camera
traps exposed on trails, as well as on the ridge and saddle of a small ridge.
After that, the equipment was removed.
Sometimes camera traps become victims of vandals and local poachers. They break them, not wanting to fall into the cameras, or format memory cards, erasing important information that has been collected for months. These facts give reason to believe that poachers are quite young people who have the skills to handle electronic equipment.
However, the data obtained suggest that the community of large mammals living in this area is in a healthy state. The dates of autumn and spring deer migration and the constant presence of brown bears during their active stay in the ecosystem are recorded. In winter, a large group (about 300 individuals) of the Dagestan tur was recorded on the mountain slopes and a stable grouping of deer with an approximate density of 25-30 individuals per 1000 ha. Approximately there is the same density of wild boar on the site.
Researchers use scent baits, which is actively
reacted by predators (wolf, fox, marten). Perhaps the bait will attract the
attention of the leopard if it is in the zone of its influence.
In the near future for a checkup, Samurskiy and Dul’tydagskiy ridge in the Lakskiy district of the Republic. Now 10 camera traps are installed on the Samurskiy ridge and its surroundings.
As for the locals, among the residents of the Republic, there are both supporters and opponents of the Red Data Book predators. The latter include many pastoralists, especially in areas where the leopard has long been forgotten. Shepherds who live in more close areas to the leopard's habitat and note the visits of predators from Azerbaijan are more relaxed about the big cats and live in peace with them. They support the idea of reintroducing the predator in Dagestan, as well as local authorities, employees and students of educational institutions of the Republic. In order to give an objective assessment and understand the attitude of residents of the mountainous regions of Dagestan to the leopard, WWF-Russia conducting a sociological study in the Republic in the coming months regarding spotted predators and the Leopard Reintroduction Program.