ALTAI REPUBLIC, Russia, Dec. 9, 2011 — Carefully placed camera traps — imagers equipped with motion sensors — have taken the first photos ever of two elusive members of the cat family. Images of both snow leopard and manul (also called Pallas’s cat) are helping conservationists to track the endangered animals and highlight their efforts to protect the dwindling species.
The camera trap project marks the first time that the feline population living on the Altai Republic’s Chikhacheva Ridge, which bridges the Russia-Mongolia border, was surveyed on both sides of the border simultaneously. In Altai Republic, staff from Arkhar and Altaisky Biosphere Reserve participated in the field expedition, joined by staff from Ubsunurskaya Basin Biosphere Reserve in Tyva Republic and Mongolian specialists from Silkkhemin Nuru National Park and World Wildlife Foundation-Mongolia.
Cameras equipped with motion sensors have captured the first images of the elusive and endangered snow leopard. (Photos: Sergei Spitsyn, Arkhar/Altaisky State Biosphere Reserve)
“To get a picture is really a big deal,” said James P. Gibbs, a conservation biologist with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., which also took part in the research. “The signs that the species is in this region are definitive, but a picture is irrefutable.”
Comparing photos from different cameras permits identification of individual animals and enables a count of the number of snow leopards living in the study region. An exact count of the remaining snow leopards, for example, has been a point of contention because of the animal’s elusiveness. The total snow leopard population on Chikhacheva Ridge spanning Russia and Mongolia is estimated at 10 to 15 animals.
The photos were taken between Oct. 26 and 30 at an altitude of about 4000 m.
“Snow leopards leave clear signs that you see readily if you look for them,” Gibbs said. “You can find scat and places where they scratch trees with their claws. And you see their scrapes — circular depressions made in the gravel that are slightly discolored. They maintain these scent marks. If you see fresh ones, you know snow leopards are in the area.”
A manul, or Pallas’s cat, also was caught by an automatic camera set to find snow leopards on Chikhacheva Ridge in the Altai Republic.
The snow leopard population is threatened by poachers who hunt the animals for their distinctive spotted coats.
In May 2011, a joint Russian-Mongolian expedition obtained a brief video of a snow leopard on the Mongolian side. To date, photographs of what are assumed to be two snow leopards were obtained at a distance of approximately 20 km apart. One camera recorded a night image of the manul as well.
The camera traps work in extreme conditions at more than 3000 m above sea level. There are 10 such cameras in operation on Chikhacheva Ridge, and they will track snow leopard movements on the ridge throughout the winter and help scientists evaluate the number of animals in the mobile population of cats. Simultaneous operation of camera traps along the full length of the ridge in both Altai and Tyva Republics in Russia and in Mongolia will gather unique data about snow leopards in this region.
For more information, visit: http://altaiproject.org
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