March 01, 2017

The Ghost of the Mountains

Timur Pustogachev stops and stares at a mound of small pebble shards. In the sea of rocks that is the Altai’s Chikhacheva Ridge, and just a half-tone darker than its immediate surroundings, this spot has for some reason caught his eye.

“Yup, a snow leopard was here,” Sergei Spitsyn confirms. An expert from the Altai Nature Reserve, Spitsyn is this morning taking four of us up a hitherto unexplored rim, hoping to find new tracks left by the rare animal. “This is an old one, but it’s a scrape pile alright – left maybe a week ago.”

Scrape piles, pugmarks and clawrakes: our team has plenty to learn as we huff and puff to keep up with Spitsyn, a sprightly, silver-haired researcher who made snow leopards in the Altai his field of scientific study two decades ago because, as he says, “someone had to do it.” Since then, he has managed to trace the big cat’s main routes in the area, determining where to set up camera traps – small plastic-encased photo and video equipment that snaps images when it senses movement in its field of vision. Spitsyn, or Sergei Vladimirovich, as we call him, moves and speaks with the efficiency of someone who has spent much of his life in the field, in treacherous environments. But he generously shares his knowledge of the area and the species, Panthera uncia – the elusive beast nicknamed “the ghost of the mountains” – an animal that inhabits high-altitude regions of Asia that are so harsh that researching the cats is a far from comfortable pursuit.

I am one of a group of fourteen who have each paid R14,000 ($235) for a week-long trip to Russia’s Asian underbelly, the Altai Republic, a region slightly bigger than Portugal that happens to share a border with Kyrgyzstan, China and Mongolia. For two full days we zip along the historic Chuysky Trakt, or Chuya Highway, a road stretching almost 1,000 kilometers from Novosibirsk to the border with Mongolia. It is a road one local native, the famed actor and director Vasily Shukshin, compared with “the imprint of a whip that has cut the mountains.”

Along the way, the scenery changes dramatically as we drive through unique relict pine taiga, then witness the snow-topped peaks of the Northern Chuya Ridge, and roll across the wind-swept Kuray (Kurayskaya) and Chuya (Chuyskaya) steppes. During one bleary-eyed lunch stop somewhere near Gorno-Altaisk, a sun-bronzed local in camouflage learns of our final destination and matter-of-factly offers a piece of advice: “Please don’t consume marmot blood. There has been an outbreak of bubonic plague.”

By the time we pitch our tents five kilometers from the Mongolian border, we seem to have arrived at the end of Earth – a deserted, exotic gateway to Asia that is Russian in name only.

There are 4,000-7,000 snow leopards in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which categorizes the animal as endangered. The animal ranges across 12 countries, with Russia at its northernmost tip. It is believed to be one of the world’s least studied mammals, due to its secretive nature, deceptive camouflage coat, and the physical demands of field research – the snow leopard inhabits altitudes from 2,500 to 5,000 meters above sea level (8,200 to 16,000 feet), scaling terrain that is often impassable for humans.

More than half of all snow leopards live on Chinese territory; Russia is home to just 100, and about 40 of those live in the Altai Republic, though they migrate back and forth between here and Mongolia, Spitsyn says. In February of each year, protected nature areas in the species’ range dispatch field scientists to count snow leopards: the snow and temperatures of -20º Celsius make such expeditions less than pleasant for the humans, but ideal for counting the cats, because this is when they are more active (mating season), and their tracks are more clearly visible, thanks to the snow.

But snow leopards are wide-roving animals whose habitat is not confined to protected reserves. Work by Spitsyn and other experts in Krasnoyarsk Krai and the republics of Altai, Tyva, and Buryatia, where the animal roams in Russia, includes monitoring their habitat to track population trends. Camera traps are a non-invasive way to do that, and they are an excellent method to identify animals by their coat patterns, especially useful when new kittens appear trailing their mother. But of course the camera traps need to be checked regularly, in order to change batteries and SD cards, and to make sure they haven’t been damaged (poachers steal them, while wolverines are known to chew off their antennas).

Other work includes anti-poaching efforts, like collecting the snares hunters set to capture the Siberian musk deer, a practice that is banned but nonetheless widely employed, and which regularly kills snow leopards. There is also cooperation with local farmers, to help them better protect their livestock from leopard attacks (thereby discouraging them from shooting the apex predator) and helping impoverished locals launch small businesses, so as to keep them from poaching for leopards and their prey. Spitsyn has even recruited local hunters to work as snow leopard monitors – paying them to provide valuable data so they won’t have the economic need to hunt the cats for their pelts.

A lot of this conservation work would be covered through a $60 million program to save big cats in Russia that was agreed upon in late 2013: the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) fund was set to contribute $12.5 million to the five-year conservation plan, along with the World Wildlife Fund, the Russian government, and other partners. But, following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the GEF money was frozen and many local initiatives had to be put on hold.

Russia’s 2012 law on “foreign agents” has also negatively affected conservation work. For years, Spitsyn had a surplus of willing volunteers to help out on the Chikhacheva Ridge – not part of a protected park – traveling from abroad through programs in which US-based NGOs partnered with Arkhar, the Russian organization Spitsyn headed. But the Kremlin’s legislation demonizing cooperation with foreign NGOs now makes such work impossible. The Russian government added Arkhar to its list of foreign agents (ostensibly, groups that engage in political activities while also receiving foreign funding), so Spitsyn decided to shut it down to avoid the sort of excess scrutiny that would distract him from his field work.

The fate of Spitsyn’s organization is typical: environmental groups have been perhaps hardest hit by the new law. At least eight environmental NGOs have shut down since 2012, after each was added to the Ministry of Justice’s “foreign agent” registry. Yet the reality is that most Russian environmental NGOs that received grants from foreign organizations since the 1990s focused not on “political activity,” or even publicity and outreach to the wider population, but on simply keeping the nature protection system afloat and funding their research programs.

“In terms of educating the public, nothing is more effective than making the public participate in real work, being volunteers,” said Alexei Ebel, a bird photographer and travel organizer from Barnaul who uses his widely-read blog to popularize nature protection. Yet small Russian NGOs, particularly those in the provinces, have regarded such work as thankless and volunteers as a burden they have no energy for. So when foreign grant funding evaporated in the wake of the 2012 law, these organizations effectively “ended up one-on-one with their problems,” said Ebel, who participated in the expedition with us and hopes to expand its format to other conservation projects in the region.

Spitsyn has also had to roll back some of his work on the Chikhacheva Ridge. “It’s harder for me now to work with the support from foreign organizations,” he said. “We worked until recently with the Snow Leopard Conservancy (a California-based organization that develops local programs that encourage poachers to find alternative incomes and helps farmers prevent attacks by the animal on livestock), but I have had to end it. I don’t want my new NGO to also be labeled a foreign agent.”

Given such constraints, Spitsyn welcomed the homegrown expedition initiative proposed by Novosibirsk resident Igor Pautov, a young businessman (he makes and sells croutons and other edibles) with no science background who became passionate about saving the Altai predator.

The two met after Pautov emailed Spitsyn a paw print he had photographed on a camping trip, thinking it was a snow leopard. It was not Panthera uncia, but Pautov nonetheless became hooked on conservation. “I understood that Sergei Vladimirovich is working practically alone. There had been American volunteers before, but no Russians… so I thought Russians would be interested in this too,” as long as they were drawn to the expedition for the right reasons, he explained.

Pautov organized his first trip in May 2016, inviting friends via his social networking page. The expedition was quite an ordeal, he says. The minivan, bought just a couple of days before their departure, kept overheating on the steep roads, and Igor had to regularly “cool” it by turning the engine into the wind.

Our trip, Pautov’s third, is almost luxurious by comparison, with battery-powered lanterns, phone chargers, board games, and even wood stoves heating the tents during crisp sub-zero nights.

This is not to say, however, that the mountains are any more accommodating. Each day’s hike is progressively more difficult, while the views below – velvety folds of alpine tundra intersected by snaking rivers; sparkling lakes nestled between jaggy peaks – become progressively more breathtaking.

“Chikhacheva is a comparatively sheltered, comfortable area for Altai: it doesn’t have dangerous wild animals or ticks. We travel in the warm time of year when there are no avalanches, so the worst thing that can happen is rain,” says Pautov, when I ask him if he envisions a more structured expedition program that factors in insurance and other liabilities. “We try to think of everything, but it’s important that participants take personal responsibility. The atmosphere will be different if we legally process it,” he says.

For most Muscovites, any trip to picturesque Altai is prohibitively expensive. A vacation in Europe is far cheaper. This may be one reason why, in the past, more Americans have joined these expeditions than Russians. The other reason is that ecotravel, or paying for the opportunity to do physically demanding work in the wild, is not something that has widely caught on in Russia. Jobs in conservation here are low paid and their prestige level is not high. As Spitsyn says, the biggest problem in snow leopard conservation is a lack of willing participants. Even when the government offers financial support to conservation programs (President Vladimir Putin himself has a soft spot for big cats, participating in various animal tagging stunts through the years, some of which have been criticized by scientists as more help to his image than to their research), it’s still hard to find helping hands, Spitsyn says.

Though Pautov’s initiative is unique for Russia, in our group, the enthusiasm is palpable. After dinner, we pack into the bigger of the two tents to listen to Spitsyn’s lectures on snow leopard tracking and his programs to mitigate snow leopard killings by farmers in the neighboring Tyva Republic. The high point of the night is looking through the photos captured by traps that we downloaded from equipment on our arduous hikes. Seeing snow leopards softly stepping into the camera’s range, argali sheep leading their young flock along the trail, curious manul cats sniffing jealously at the marks made by the big cat, and marmots wiggling their fat little behinds as they plop down for a nap, gives us the goosebumps of exploration, a feeling hard to come by in an era when most of the planet seems to have already been photographed, geotagged and ranked in travel guides.

“I just felt that I don’t want to simply sightsee anymore,” said Darya Popenko, a participant from Tomsk, as we shared our thoughts on the last evening in the mountains. “I wanted to do something useful. On the expedition you can really feel like a pioneer.” RL

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