As few as 4,000 snow leopards are left in the wild today.

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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.3, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Production, Distribution, and Consumption

WORLD

On the Hunt to Save a Species

People who once illegally preyed on snow leopards in Russia are now protecting the rare animals—by taking their pictures. Learn how the stunning photos are helping the big cats make a comeback.

As You Read, Think About: What problems do snow leopards face? How are people working together to solve those problems?

As Mergen Markov trekked across Siberia, a remote, frigid region located mostly in Russia, his mission was clear. He was hunting for snow leopards.

Despite the freezing temperatures, Markov was hot on the animals’ trail. Following their paw prints in the snow, he journeyed high into the rugged mountains, knowing that the big cats tend to roam at soaring elevations.

If all went according to plan, Markov would soon get the perfect shot of his target—with a camera.

It was 2013, and the villager from Russia’s Altai Republic had just been hired by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to help with a project that was giving it trouble. Scientists from the conservation organization had been trying to study snow leopards, a threatened species native to that area, by monitoring the big cats with camera traps. These motion-triggered cameras—which the experts had hidden throughout the countryside—snap pictures whenever an animal passes by. The conservationists hoped that the photos would allow them to keep track of the species in order to protect it from poachers and other threats.

Mergen Markov trekked across Siberia, a remote, frigid region located mostly in Russia. His mission was clear. He was hunting for snow leopards.

Despite the freezing temperatures, Markov was hot on the animals’ trail. He followed their paw prints in the snow. He journeyed high into the rugged mountains. He knew that the big cats tend to roam at soaring elevations.

If all went according to plan, Markov would soon get the perfect shot of his target—with a camera.

It was 2013. The villager from Russia’s Altai Republic had just been hired by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to help with a project that was giving it trouble. Scientists from the conservation organization had been trying to study snow leopards, a threatened species native to that area. They had been trying to monitor the big cats with camera traps. These motion-triggered cameras snap pictures whenever an animal passes by. The experts had hidden the cameras throughout the countryside. The conservationists hoped that the photos would allow them to keep track of the species in order to protect it from poachers and other threats.

But snow leopards are incredibly shy creatures that avoid areas where humans tend to go. After two years, the scientists had only a handful of clear images—hardly enough data to study the animals.

Markov, however, knew exactly how to get the shots they needed. In no time, he had captured stunning images of a snow leopard previously unknown to the scientists—and her two cubs! 

What made Markov such an expert on snow leopards? How could he predict the movements and behaviors of such an elusive species better than the scientists?

The answer is simple. Markov used to hunt the animals—illegally.

Markov is a former snow leopard poacher who has lived in the Altai Republic his entire life. He is part of an innovative WWF effort that offers illegal hunters the opportunity to protect the animals they once preyed on.

Today, Markov is a “snow leopard guard” and one of the most trusted members of the program. In addition to snapping pictures of the animals, he patrols their habitat and helps educate members of his village about the importance of preserving the species. What’s more, the wildlife organization pays him for his efforts. That’s key, experts say, because many hunters turn to poaching out of desperation. There are often few jobs where they live.

Thanks to the program, snow leopards in the region are now thriving, and no one is happier about that than Markov.

“Snow leopards are so beautiful,” he says. “We share the land. We share the mountains. I don’t want to hurt them anymore.” 

But snow leopards are incredibly shy creatures. They avoid areas where humans tend to go. After two years, the scientists had only a handful of clear images. It was hardly enough data to study the animals.

But Markov knew exactly how to get the shots they needed. In no time, he had captured stunning images of a snow leopard previously unknown to the scientists—and her two cubs!

What made Markov such an expert on snow leopards? How could he predict the movements and behaviors of such an elusive species better than the scientists?

The answer is simple. Markov used to hunt the animals illegally.

Markov is a former snow leopard poacher. He has lived in the Altai Republic his entire life. He is part of an innovative WWF effort that offers illegal hunters the opportunity to protect the animals they once preyed on.

Today, Markov is a “snow leopard guard” and one of the program’s most trusted members. He does not just snap pictures. He also patrols the animals’ habitat. He helps educate members of his village about the importance of preserving the species. And the wildlife organization pays him for his efforts. Experts say that is key because many hunters turn to poaching out of desperation. There are often few jobs where they live.

Thanks to the program, snow leopards in the region are now thriving. No one is happier about that than Markov.

“Snow leopards are so beautiful,” he says. “We share the land. We share the mountains. I don’t want to hurt them anymore.”

Animals at Risk 

Colin Monteath/Hedgehog House/Minden Pictures

Snow leopards roam across the rocky peaks of 12 countries in Central Asia, including Russia, China, and Mongolia (see map, below).

The big cats are often called the “ghosts of the mountains.” Not only do they avoid humans, but their spotted gray-and-white pelts blend into the snowy environments in which they live, making them difficult to see. The animals are also most active during dawn and dusk, when it’s dark outside.

Despite their isolation, snow leopards are in danger. As few as 4,000 are left in the wild, according to recent WWF estimates. Poachers typically set lethal wire snare traps to capture and kill the animals. Then they take their fur.

Snow leopards have one of the most luxurious coats of all the big cats. A snow leopard pelt can fetch more than $600 on the black market in parts of Asia, where the fur is used to make everything from garments to area rugs. For many hunters living in remote villages in the Altai Republic, that’s enough money to live on for about two months.

Snow leopards roam across the rocky peaks of 12 countries in Central Asia, including Russia, China, and Mongolia (see map, below).

The big cats are often called the “ghost of the mountains.” They avoid humans. Also, their spotted gray-and-white pelts blend into the snowy environments in which they live. That makes them difficult to see. The animals are also most active during dawn and dusk, when it is dark outside.

Despite their isolation, snow leopards are in danger. As few as 4,000 are left in the wild. That is according to recent WWF estimates. Poachers typically set lethal wire snare traps to capture and kill the animals. Then they take their fur.

Snow leopards have one of the most luxurious coats of all the big cats. A snow leopard pelt can fetch more than $600 on the black market in parts of Asia. There, the fur is used to make everything from garments to area rugs. For many hunters living in remote villages in the Altai Republic, that is enough money to live on for about two months.

“People Had to Feed Their Families”

Poaching in Russia began to increase in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a huge country in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In the years to follow, Russia (which used to be part of the Soviet Union) was plagued by corruption and crime. The country’s economy suffered and prices for food soared.

With unemployment increasing, many hunters in poverty-stricken villages of the Altai Republic turned to poaching to make a living. 

Poaching in Russia began to increase in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a huge country in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In the years to follow, Russia (the largest of the former Soviet states) was plagued by corruption and crime. The country’s economy suffered. Prices for food soared.

Unemployment was increasing. So many hunters in poverty-stricken villages of the Altai Republic turned to poaching to make a living.

Many hunters turn to poaching to earn money to help support their families.

©WWF Russia

Markov’s village of Argut is incredibly small, making it hard to find work.

That was the case for Markov. After serving in the Russian army, he returned home to the tiny village of Argut in the early 2000s. 

“I couldn’t find a job,” he says. “People had to feed their families. Some people from outside the village offered good money for [snow leopard pelts]. How could I refuse?”

Markov’s first name means “hunter” in Altai, the language of his region’s Indigenous people. He learned how to track and kill snow leopards from his father, who was also a poacher. As Markov and other poachers covered the countryside with snare traps, snow leopards were rapidly being wiped out in the Altai Mountains. 

Traditional antipoaching methods such as policing weren’t working, in part because the region is so large.

“It became clear that strict patrolling brings temporary results,” says Alexander Karnaukhov, a project coordinator with WWF Russia. “To make conservation sustainable and fight poaching in the long [run], we needed to change the attitude of the local people.”

That was the case for Markov. After serving in the Russian army, he returned home to the tiny village of Argut in the early 2000s.

“I couldn’t find a job,” he says. “People had to feed their families. Some people from outside the village offered good money for [snow leopard pelts]. How could I refuse?”

Markov’s first name means “hunter” in Altai. That is the language of his region’s Indigenous people. He learned how to track and kill snow leopards from his father, who was also a poacher. Markov and other poachers were covering the countryside with snare traps. And snow leopards were rapidly being wiped out in the Altai Mountains.

Traditional antipoaching methods such as policing were not working. That is in part because the region is so large.

“It became clear that strict patrolling brings temporary results,” says Alexander Karnaukhov. He is a project coordinator with WWF Russia. “To make conservation sustainable and fight poaching in the long [run], we needed to change the attitude of the local people.”

Snow Leopard Trust/Nature Conservation Foundation-India via SnowLeopard.org

Sensors on camera traps like this one take pictures when an animal passes by.

A Wild Idea

As a first step toward saving snow leopards in the Altai Republic, conservationists helped designate a protected area for the animals in 2010. Called Sailugemsky National Park, the mountain region is about the size of Los Angeles, California. 

Shortly thereafter, scientists began setting camera traps throughout the park to monitor the animals, but they soon realized they needed help. That’s when a WWF scientist suggested they persuade poachers to join their efforts.

“Local hunters are perfectly aware of the animals’ tracks and can define the snow leopards’ routes better than the scientists,” Karnaukhov says.

It’s an approach that has helped other species. Similar programs elsewhere in the world train former poachers to protect various at-risk animals (see sidebar, below).

As a first step toward saving snow leopards in the Altai Republic, conservationists helped designate a protected area for the animals in 2010. That mountain region is about the size of Los Angeles, California. It is called Sailugemsky National Park.

Shortly thereafter, scientists began setting camera traps throughout the park to monitor the animals. But they soon realized they needed help. That is when a WWF scientist suggested they persuade poachers to join their efforts.

“Local hunters are perfectly aware of the animals’ tracks and can define the snow leopards’ routes better than the scientists,” Karnaukhov says.

It is an approach that has helped other species. Similar programs elsewhere in the world train former poachers to protect various at-risk animals (see sidebar, below).

Other Poachers Turned Protectors

Former hunters are using their skills to protect threatened animals worldwide.

Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

Snow leopards aren’t the only species being saved by former hunters. In India, several national parks hire ex-poachers to guard tigers. The animals are hunted for their tails and bones, which are used to make medicines in parts of Asia.

Similar efforts are underway to save the African elephant. The animals are poached for their ivory tusks, which are carved into jewelry and other items that can sell for thousands of dollars on the black market in China and the United States.

In northern Kenya, the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary (above) is operated by a local group that includes former elephant poachers. Today, the ex-hunters protect the animals by patrolling nearby regions and helping to arrest poachers.

Thanks in part to such programs, at-risk species are rebounding—and former illegal hunters receive steady incomes, often for the first time in their lives.

Snow leopards aren’t the only species being saved by former hunters. In India, several national parks hire ex-poachers to guard tigers. The animals are hunted for their tails and bones, which are used to make medicines in parts of Asia.

Similar efforts are underway to save the African elephant. The animals are poached for their ivory tusks, which are carved into jewelry and other items that can sell for thousands of dollars on the black market in China and the United States.

In northern Kenya, the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary (above) is operated by a local group that includes former elephant poachers. Today, the ex-hunters protect the animals by patrolling nearby regions and helping to arrest poachers.

Thanks in part to such programs, at-risk species are rebounding—and former illegal hunters receive steady incomes, often for the first time in their lives.

Markov was one of the first poachers the WWF contacted. Part of the challenge for the experts was gaining the trust of the hunters and convincing them that snow leopards need protection. For many Altai villagers, hunting has been their way of life for years. They often view the big cats no differently from animals that are legal to hunt, such as deer. But over time, the scientists formed a dedicated team willing to trade in its snare traps for camera traps.

Today, eight former poachers are working as snow leopard guards for the WWF. Upon completing their training, the men venture into Sailugemsky park, where they set up their camera traps. Then they deliver the images to the scientists.

Markov was one of the first poachers the WWF contacted. Part of the challenge for the experts was gaining the trust of the hunters and convincing them that snow leopards need protection. For many Altai villagers, hunting has been their way of life for years. They often view the big cats no differently from animals that are legal to hunt, such as deer. But over time, the scientists formed a dedicated team of local people willing to trade in their snare traps for camera traps.

Today, eight former poachers are working as snow leopard guards for the WWF. Upon completing their training, the men venture into Sailugemsky park. They set up camera traps. Then they deliver the images to the scientists.

This year alone, Markov and the other guards have taken hundreds of pictures of snow leopards.

For every image of a snow leopard Markov captures, he receives a payment of about $600—the value of one pelt. If, after one year, that same animal is still appearing in his pictures—meaning it’s still alive—he receives a bonus. To further supplement his income, the WWF hires him as a guide for other projects in the region and rents his horses. 

Markov—who uses the money he earns to support his wife and daughter—still considers himself a hunter, just a different kind of hunter.

“When I open the camera,” he says, “I’m eager to see what I caught.”

For every image of a snow leopard Markov captures, he receives a payment of about $600. That is the value of one pelt. If, after one year, that same animal is still appearing in his pictures, that means it is still alive. So he receives a bonus. To further supplement his income, the WWF hires him as a guide for other projects in the region and rents his horses.

Markov uses the money he earns to support his wife and daughter. He still considers himself a hunter, just a different kind of hunter.

“When I open the camera,” he says, “I’m eager to see what I caught.”

© WWF Russia

The cameras catch everything from snow leopards walking by to peering into the lens (above)

The Comeback Cats

This year alone, Markov and the other guards have taken hundreds of snow leopard pictures with about 30 camera traps set up throughout Sailugemsky park. The images show everything from adults scratching in the ground to mark their territory to cubs playfully tussling in the snow.

The photos are helping scientists gain a better understanding of snow leopards. And thanks to the former hunters’ other duty of patrolling the region, poaching has decreased in the area—while the number of snow leopards has increased!

Today, 15 of the big cats are under protection in Sailugemsky park. That’s up from as few as two of the animals when the protected area was first established. Snow leopard numbers are also increasing across the Altai Republic as a whole.

With this momentum, the WWF plans to recruit snow leopard poachers in other parts of Russia to join its conservation efforts. At the same time, Russian officials are looking into ways to increase job opportunities for people who live in snow leopard habitats so they don’t turn to poaching in the first place.