Number of the Beast

 Siberian nature reserve inspectors on meetings with the country’s rarest animals  12/11/2013, 19:56
Number of the Beast
Photography by Roman Brygin and the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve

Bears walking through streets of Siberian cities are a well-known stereotype, but in fact, it’s much harder to meet the wild animals face to face. Even workers at the Sayano-Shushensky Nature Reserve often only get to see their «charges» in photographs taken by special «spy devices». Reserve employees told Sib.fm’s correspondent about the population size of Russia’s rarest animals and why they remain under threat even in such conditions.

The Sayano-Shushensky reserve is home to various vegetation zones: steppe, forest steppe, forest, taiga, tundra, alpine tundra, alpine meadows and barrens. That’s why the flora and fauna is so diverse. Bears, stag and wolves live in the forest, elks, sable and wolverine in the taiga, reindeer high in the mountains, and down below — in the mountain steppes — you can come across snow leopards, Pallas’ cats and Siberian ibex.

In the spring and early summer, the hoofed mammals can often be found on patches of saline soil, where mineral salts come to the surface. Bears also come to eat the soil when they are short on minerals. Incidentally, brown bears aren’t only brown, as most people think, but also grey, smoke-coloured and even yellow. The colour of their fur differs in the same way as eye colour in humans.

The reserve regularly maintains records of the animals using various methods. The most important are relative surveys of tracks and other traces left by animals.

Siberian ibex live closer to Tuva, where the rocky mountain steppes start. Animals climb down the rock faces to convenient drinking places. Some of these trails can be seen with the naked eye: narrow paths have been stamped out in the sparse grass.

The wild mountain goats, as the most abundant species of hoofed mammals, form the basis of predators’ diet in the reserve. A large number of their remains can be found near the water, as attacking wolves herd them down to the reservoir. If an ibex doesn’t succumb and runs uphill, it will be saved — the weaker ones are easy prey.

40 wolves live in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve

«Wolves primarily prey on the hoofed mammals that are higher in number. Although there are some ’highly specialized’ wolves that only hunt individuals of one species their entire lives. A medium-sized wolf can swallow up to 10 kilograms of meat in large chunks at a time. In his shelter, he’ll regurgitate the meat and take his time to eat it again, carefully chewing,» says Timur Mukhamediev, tourism instructor at the reserve’s department of environmental education, tourism and recreation.

Wolves aren’t the only animals to eat ibex, snow leopards do too. Today, hunting of the snow leopard is banned worldwide: their number is catastrophically low and continues to decline.

In Russia, there are only a handful in the wild: according to some data, there are about 150-200 leopards left, according to other sources — no more than 50.

Seven to nine of them live permanently in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve in the Krasnoyarsk Krai region: a dominant male, two adult females and a few young of both sexes. Each year, females give birth to 1-3 cubs, but the leader banishes them when they grow up, and they settle outside their parents’ territory, sometimes right up to the Mongolian border or even farther.

The most famous snow leopard in the country lives here, in the Siberian nature reserve. It’s called Mongol because of its beautiful slanting eyes. Mongol was the first snow leopard in Russia to be fitted with a special satellite collar to track all its movements.

Snow leopard Mongol got its name for the slanted eyes

By no means all the reserve employees know where the cameras are located — once, a memory card was filled up by an inspector that had bent down to tie his shoelaces.

In addition to the satellite beacon, the reserve has special camouflaged camera traps that react to movement: every few months, workers change the memory card and review the recorded footage.

The animals have gotten used to the camera traps and, as if on purpose, sometimes come to pose in front of them.

«Prior to the installation of camera traps, we were unable to take pictures of the leopards, and only focused on tracks and other signs of their presence. Of course, a lot of people told us stories about encounters with them — wishful thinking — although there are some rare lucky ones who actually succeeded,» smiles Timur Mukhamediev.

Camera traps provide valuable information about the animals, showing not only their number and habits, but also their health condition.

— С одного медведя, добытого охотниками в соседних охотничьих угодьях, были сняты сразу три петли — на шее были. А сейчас, судя по фотоловушкам, беременная самка барса ходит с петлёй на шее. Вот как это скажется на детёнышах? Это браконьеры на кабаргу ставят, а попадаются в них все животные, — сокрушается участковый инспектор Андрей Сазыкин.

120 thousand dollars — the value of a snow leopard hide on the black market

The musk deer is a cloven-hoofed animal, the smallest hornless relative of conventional deer. Of particular value is their musk gland, which is only found in adult males and has a price comparable to that of gold. An adult male’s gland weighs up to 10-20 grams; the musk is used in the perfume industry and Oriental medicine. This led to mass extermination of the animals, which is still ongoing.

Preservation of the snow leopard population and its prosperity is impossible without comprehensive protection of its entire surroundings. For example, if the ibex are wiped out, the leopards will simply have nothing to eat.

«Right now, two leopards are walking around in snares from poachers — they set traps for musk deer, but everything gets caught in them. So many have already been exterminated: they kill females and just cast aside the young, because they only need males. And the less musk deer remain, the better — they’ll be able to sell them for more money,» says district inspector Andrei Sazykin. «In Russia, musk deer hunting is officially allowed, despite the fact that the number of individuals has dramatically decreased.»

According to reserve workers, the crimes against the musk deer are supported from above: it was recently removed from the Red Book, the national endangered species list.

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«Wholesalers buy the glands from hunters at bargain prices and resell them for ten times more. Until trade is stopped, it will be impossible to save the animals,» explain the inspectors. «The snow leopards are vulnerable to attack too. For example, our protected territory is located on only one bank of the River Yenisei. But all winter our reserve leopards cross the ice onto the right bank, it’s a proven fact. And there, they continue to be illegally hunted.»

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