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A female snow leopard and three cubs were caught on camera in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve

The long-awaited replenishment in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve! A camera trap captured a female snow leopard with three cubs. For the first time, the new family got into the camera lens on October 18. Two weeks later, the mother and her already grown up kids performed before the audience “for an encore”, having frolic to their heart’s content in the fresh, barely fallen snow. The Russian Geographical Society is happy to share with the readers of the site video recordings and details of the history of the reconstruction of the snow leopard group within the framework of the program “Snow Leopard – a living symbol of the Western Sayan”.

Snow Leopard – a rare species of wild cats, listed in the Red Book of Russia and the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. To date, the number of snow leopards in Russia is only 70–90 individuals. The graceful predator is one of the priority types of the federal project “Biodiversity conservation and development of ecotourism” of the national project “Ecology” of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology of the Russian Federation.

The program “Snow leopard – a living symbol of the Western Sayan” is designed to restore the number of snow leopards in the Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve and recreate a stable group of a rare predator on the northern border of the Russian range.

Since 2010, in the south of the Krasnoyarsk Territory and in the Republic of Khakassia, with financial support of the Russian Geographical Society several projects are being implemented to protect and restore the snow leopard population. A large amount of information was obtained by studying the group of snow leopards living on the territory of the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve. This allowed to significantly expand knowledge about the biology and ecology of the rare cat.

Despite efforts to conserve the snow leopard, since 2013, its numbers in the Altai-Sayan region have continued to decline rapidly. The reserve was no exception. How noted President of the Russian Geographical Society Sergei Shoigu at a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Geographical Society in 2019, one of the main threats to the number of snow leopards in the Western Sayan is the poaching of musk deer: “… poachers put hundreds of loops … This, of course, is a huge problem that must, of course, be dealt with fight because it is the most barbaric form of poaching.”

The Sayano-Shushensky Nature Reserve is a historical habitat for the snow leopard. Losing them here means losing a unique part of Russia’s natural heritage. A real tragedy for the local group of snow leopards was the death in 2013 of a reproductive female and her kittens. The young mother was seriously injured by a poacher’s noose and died. The cubs, left alone, were doomed.

By 2017, one of the largest and most studied groups of the snow leopard in Russia practically ceased to exist in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve. Only one male named Ichthyander constantly appeared within the specially protected area.

The chance to restore the number of snow leopards in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve appeared after the visit of the President of Russia, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Geographical Society Vladimir Putin to Tajikistan. The Tajik side handed over the snow leopards for release to the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve. This is how the experiment on the translocation of snow leopards started. From 2018 to 2019, the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve was released two individuals – male and female.

The support of the Russian Geographical Society made it possible to carry out a whole range of nature protection and research activities within the framework of the project. Among them, constant monitoring of released snow leopards was organized with the help of satellite collars and images from automatic photo recorders. The predators successfully chose individual habitats in the reserve, and also contacted each other and with the aboriginal male Ichthyander. During the meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Geographical Society in 2019, Dmitry Peskov, Chairman of the RGS Media Council, spoke about the progress of the project.

In 2020, after the completion of the rutting period, which was quite active, the released female did not fall into the lens of camera traps for a long time. This allowed scientists to hope for the appearance of offspring. The exciting process of waiting ended in October. Experts’ predictions were confirmed – the first pictures of a female with two six-month-old kittens were obtained, which became proof of the success of an unprecedented experiment on snow leopard translocation.

Snow leopard kittens at the age of one year reach the size of adults. However, for about six months after that, they walk with their mother, adopting the skills necessary for independent living. Young snow leopards born in 2020 behaved in much the same way. Kittens, like any children, ran, frolicked and played. Often, fascinating moments from the life of the “leopard family” fell into the lenses of camera traps, were published by the staff of the reserve and evoked a positive response in society.

When the kittens grew up, scientists used camera traps to determine their gender. It turned out that in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve appeared young male and female snow leopard. The growing snow leopards were given personal passports.

At the beginning of 2022, young snow leopards began to live independently. It is noteworthy that the female remained on the territory of the reserve and chose an individual site for herself. The young male went to explore other areas of the snow leopard migration corridor in the Altai-Sayan region. This suggests that the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve has a positive impact on the strengthening of other snow leopard groups.

In March, snow leopards have a rutting season. This year, three males followed the matured female at once. After some time, photographs were taken from camera traps, in which the lady clearly “rounded up.” And just the other day, scientists and representatives of the Khakass branch of the Russian Geographical Society returned to the reserve with good news from the expedition. They brought unique footage showing a female snow leopard with three cubs.

The cubs are about six months old and their sex has not yet been determined. Young snow leopards already walk with their mother, play and learn about the world around them. Thus, the number of snow leopards in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve has increased to nine individuals.

Alexander Zhirnov

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