Entering The Snow Leopard’s Lair

Our World’s own Citt Williams recounts her visit to Argut Nature Park and Shavla Wildlife Refuge in the Republic of Altai, Russian Federation, where she experienced first-hand the plight of endangered snow leopards and hard-pressed shepherds.

The Altai mountain pony below me stumbles on a wobbly rock. I breathe in sharply as loose shale slides off the cliff’s edge and bounces towards the frozen Argut River below. Aduchy, my indigenous Altaian guide, twists around in his saddle and re-counts his travel companions. He motions for me to lean forward. Over the Siberian wind’s howl, my interpreter Irena loudly translates in her thick Russian accent: “Sit forward to help the climbing horse.”

Today, the steep mountain slopes of Argut Valley’s Shavla Wildlife Refuge look like a wolf’s pelt. Along this remote and treacherous valley path, ancient alpine forests and remote rocky meadows repose under a blanket of melting snow.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, two unique factors determine this region’s rich and endemic biodiversity. The conditions here are such that multiple climatic zones vary in altitude up the mountainside. The region also offers a remoteness that allows a range of species populations to evolve independently in isolated areas.

The value of the resulting flora and fauna is aptly recognized. A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization certificate, proudly displayed in the Gorno-Altaisk (the Altai Republic’s capital) museum, proclaims: “The World Heritage committee has inscribed the Golden Mountains of Altai on the World Heritage List.”

In 2003, this valley, along with neighbouring trans-boundary regions in Kazakhstan, China, Russia and Mongolia — collectively referred to as the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion — was selected as a UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) site. Representing the most complete sequence of altitudinal vegetation zones in Central Siberia, the region is also one of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) global priority ecosystems. Home to 3,726 registered plant species (12 percent endemic, 700 of which are threatened or rare) and 680 animal species, it is clear that the Altai-Sayan is a treasure trove.

Jagged peaks shelter Russia’s largest population of the endangered snow leopard — that is only about 30-40 cats. These creatures are so rare, even Aduchy has never seen one.

quote_leopard01Soon, these meadows will be green and fragrant, as grass shoots begin fattening the Altai-Sayan’s largest population of Ibex (mountain goat). Aduchy’s Turkic ancestors knew well the valley’s abundance, and still impart it to kin through rock art petroglyphs along the valley walls.

We ride on, following the food chain higher, where jagged peaks shelter Russia’s largest population of the endangered snow leopard — that is only about 30-40 cats. These creatures are so rare, even Aduchy has never seen one.

With Russia’s snow leopards totalling 150–200 and global wild population estimated to number between 4,080 to 6,590, this valley should be a well-organized sanctuary. Sadly, I discovered, the current reality is something different.

Altai people and their challenges

Situated at one of the northern Silk Road’s junctions, Altaians have profited for thousands of years from the rich trade and mix of cultures passing through. The mountain-scapes yielded to the people (and today still do) prizes like wild mountain honey, medicinal herbs, precious metals, quality horses and rare fur pelts.

But today, despite declining animal populations, wild meats, snow leopard pelts and body parts are still found on the black markets of Central and Inner Asia. As recent as April this year, a snow leopard pelt was seized from traffickers at a remote Mongolian/Chinese border.

Altai shepherds earn on average about 1,600-3,100 Rubles (US$50-100) per month. Unemployment in the Republic of Altai averages around 40 percent, but in some remote villages like Aduchy’s Inegen, it is unofficially as high as 70 percent.

Olga Todukova, who runs Inegen’s general store, explains that the business often operates at a loss because she is obligated to mainly provide goods to villagers on credit. A loaf of bread costs 13 Rubles ($.42), 1kg of rice 30 Rubles ($1) and luxury items like sausage and butter up to 150 Rubles per kg ($4.85).

When shepherds like Aduchy can only sell their flocks as domestic meat for about 8 Rubles per kilo ($0.20), it can be very difficult to feed, cloth and shelter a family.

Therefore, when shepherds like Aduchy can only sell their flocks as domestic meat for about 8 Rubles per kilo ($0.20), it can be very difficult to feed, cloth and shelter a family. Many Altaian shepherds have no choice but to boost the family’s meat consumption with wild meat.

With colonization, Soviet-ization, and then the free market economy, traditional land-use has undergone drastic changes, and the Altai’s indigenous peoples’ lives and cultures have changed with a loss of mobility in pastoral systems.

Both the WWF and MEA report that poverty, widespread unemployment and a lack of alternative economic activities have forced many locals to turn to poaching, logging and collection of non-timber forest products. Small-scale logging operations have already led to habitat degradation and fragmentation. Weak local management and control systems mean that this accelerating threat is left unchecked.

Another growing problem is uncontrolled tourism. The recreational value of the Altai-Sayan has recently been rediscovered by many Russian tourists, and the number of visitors during the short summer period has increased dramatically in recent years.

Aduchy explains that the locally driven set-up of Argut Nature Park in 2003 and its hand-built ecotourism venture, Irbis (Altai for “snow leopard”) Eco-tour, is an important cultural step forward. Championing their custodial role and rights in biodiversity hotspots, he and other Inegen villagers are eagerly being trained by WWF and the UN Development Programme on biodiversity, guiding and group expedition skills. They are learning how to create lasting eco-tourism business ventures whilst still maintaining the community’s cultural protocols and foundations.

With last year’s tourist venture inauguration, Irbis Eco-tour welcomed about 30 tourists. With the main tourist trail 22 km away, the team members worry that the results are slow. Contributing to this pace, the Nature Park’s headquarters is without phone service. Olga’s husband, Irbis Eco-tour director Slava Todukov, shows his dedication by regularly climbing the nearest mountain to check his mobile phone messages or call the bookings office. The village itself is off the main highway and is only reachable via a one-lane suspension bridge over the Katun River or via horseback on mountain trails. Because of this remoteness, Slava comments, the Nature Park has yet to attract many outsiders.

A stitch in time saves nine

Last summer, I had heard about the park and decided I would see it for myself in the metamorphosis of early spring. In a flurry of snowflakes, I had set off with Aduchy, and Irena (my translator), wearing every stitch of clothing I possessed. For eight hours, our sure-footed horses took us around mountain ledges, through forest groves, and over the slippery ice of the river crossings. Managing their flocks out here, in -40ºC winters, these people are tough. My tiny heated apartment in Tokyo, was a distant dream.

Now, all horses and riders, cold and weary, arrive at Argut shepherds’ winter camp to find an empty fireplace, chopped wood and a battered rusty stove. In the -15ºC cold, we battle the wind with gloved hands to erect a small tent. Aduchy explains that there used to be a small shepherd’s house, but rich poachers who come in helicopters had recently burnt it down. “They wanted to threaten us… [warn us to] get out of this place,” he tells us.

News reported that high level government officials had been flying in helicopters (below the radar, under 300 metres) to sport poach in the region.

Even with the international wildlife protection efforts, the poaching continues. In early January 2009, a fatal helicopter crash in the Altai Mountains was captured on phone cameras and later broadcast on television across Russia and abroad. With photos and eye-witness accounts, the news reported that high level government officials had been flying in helicopters (below the radar, under 300 metres) to sport poach in the region. A federal inquiry from the Kremlin was instigated, but because government officials were fatal casualties, it is being wrapped up quickly. The incident, dubbed Altaigate, has generated much controversy.

Yet, Aduchy says the helicopters keep coming. He estimates that due to continual sport poaching, the Argut River basin’s 3,500–3,700 wild goats (the snow leopard’s prey base) have been dramatically reduced. Slava too said that since the Soviet system’s collapse, the goat populations have decreased visibly: “There are much less animals than ten years ago… you would once see them everywhere.”

Such concerns have helped trigger a UNDP/Global Environment Fund project to successfully test a satellite anti-poaching system in another nearby park. Detectors — hidden along trails, in log cabins and other places used by poachers — transmit an alarm upon unauthorized entry, which is received by the Park Director via satellite phone. Ranger patrol groups (or authorized shepherds like Aduchy) could also use the satellite phones to liaise with the Park’s station, police, and emergency service.

Whilst playing with my small digital camera around the campfire, Aduchy says he welcomes any technology that can help with conservation. When asked about making videos, he confides: “I’d like to make a short film about the helicopters.”

He then adds: “But, I’d like a satellite phone with GPS camera, so we can take telescopic photos or, if possible, video of the helicopter pilot’s faces, and then upload them immediately back to park base for interception by the authorities.”

Unfortunately, the biggest problem includes local and regional government officials who, as yet, don’t fully support the administrative running of the park.

Nature conservation as a career

After a cold starry night spent sleeping under wool and wolf pelts, we climb a nearby high ridge called Shi-be (meaning ‘castle’ in old Mongolian). With the aid of binoculars, Aduchy proudly points out a high plateau, where for eons, his ancestors have been buried. And then, as if passionately possessed, his storytelling comes alive.

“See this canyon? It is the steepest and most difficult to access — it’s like a bowl. We have a great epic legend about this, this ark-yut (Altai for ‘milk product bowl’ or ‘container’). It was upturned and everything flowed out… see the flowing milk from the vessel, the milk of the river?”

I pause for a moment, and think about this just-shared traditional knowledge. A sacred bio-diverse valley… a bowl of creamy milk for the precious cats.

Conservation efforts in the region are reaching out to shepherds like Aduchy. Training his eagle-eyed observation and traditional environmental knowledge, he and others already do their best to keep park staff, and international experts further afield, up-to-date on specific environmental changes.

The expert team of shepherds and wildlife scientists estimated that the valley supported approximately 4–5 snow leopards.

In 2007, Aduchy was involved in a strenuous scientific expedition throughout Argut Valley, to gather information about the snow leopard populations. Methodically spreading out, climbing and scouring by foot, he and other Argut Valley shepherds traversed steep sections “too dangerous for horses”. They tracked and recorded snow leopard footprints, faeces and other specific species indicators. When the data was compiled, their expert team of shepherds and wildlife scientists estimated that the valley supported approximately 4–5 snow leopards that migrate regularly across a 50–60 km bio-corridor of mountains southwest into Kazakhstan Altai.

[Glimpse the elusive curious cat in this snowleopardconservation.org video, captured by special trigger camera.]


But poachers, habitat competition, food security, and lack of government support are not the only threats affecting plants and animal populations in the Altai. Erratic climatic systems caused by global warming are beginning to take their toll on the high alpine ecosystems.

A soon to be published regional UNESCO report indicates that a nearby high mountain Russian meteorology station has recorded temperature rises of about 2°C in winter and 0.5°C in summer over the last 50 years. Since 1870, when instrumental measurements began, the Altai’s small glaciers have shrunk 20–40 percent and large valley glaciers 8–20 percent.

Future forecasts estimate that changing climatic conditions will be most visible in the upward shift of the treeline (approx. 50–100m) and sub-alpine shrubs (approx. 100–200m) by 2090.

The report says species like snow leopards will be affected by unfavourable winter conditions (possibly heavier snowfall), forcing large and exhausting seasonal migrations. Also, the intensification of summer dry periods will put its main food source, wild goats, in direct competition with domestic cattle grazing on higher mountain pastures.

Locals like Aduchy speak of similar observations to these recent scientific findings; complaining of heavy snowfalls in winter and unseasonal snow in spring, dry intense summers and erratic climatic and river level fluctuations.


Whilst localised data and modelling need to be collected and further synthesized, the report suggests adaptation strategies may include public awareness raising and local monitoring of “global warming” issues and signals, up-scaling of poaching monitoring activities, and demonstration projects in alternative energy, sustainable tourism and diversification of vulnerable communities.

Most ambitious is the creation of the visionary Altai-Sayan Connectivity Corridor.The plan, by Russian, Chinese, Mongolian and Kazakhstan partners, seeks “to ensure the natural and cultural heritage of the Altai-Sayan always stays intact and interconnected and nurtures its traditional people and their cultural legacies”. The formation of the corridor has already begun in Russian Altai through the clustering of neighbouring protected areas. As recently as late February 2010, the Russian Federation’s government established a cluster as Sailugemsky National Park (80,000 hectares), located in Argut River basin.

This July, a regular congress between the trans-boundary partners is scheduled to take place in a small regional village near Inegen.

Meanwhile, today, three families work and manage the winter camps along Argut Valley. In summer, they graze their cattle and goats higher up the slopes or work for Russian tourism ventures in neighbouring Mt. Belukha Nature Park.

Now, with their traditional lands also converted into a National Park, local Altaians have built a tourist ail (traditional house) on a leased piece of land near their village, planted a native species estate with support from local botanical gardens, and secured building materials for a traditional Russian banya (bathhouse). There is even a sign out on the highway.

If the venture can earn enough, or if the villagers can find more international support, Slava says they have plans for the construction of an Argut Valley snow leopard museum and hopefully the reconstruction of their winter camp house upstream.

Hopefully this summer, things will change a little, for the better.

• ♦ •

If you would like more information on the spectacular Argut Valley, Altai-Sayan Ecoregion biodiversity conservation, snow leopard programs or would like to support this community-led project by organising the horse adventure of a lifetime into the snow leopard’s lair, please contact Chagat Almashev, of the Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai, or UNDP’s Mikhail Paltsyn.

Slideshow music: “My motherland” by Emil Terkishev and Rudmilla Terkishev.

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Entering The Snow Leopard’s Lair by Citt Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


A passionate and proactive filmmaker, Citt Williams’ documentaries have been screened at festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Sydney and Mumbai. Citt is currently completing her Master of Science in Climate Change at University of East Anglia.