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Paws off: professor calls for awareness, protection of snow leopards

Illustration by Natalie Riess | Art Director

All eyes will be on Sochi, Russia as the 2014 Winter Olympics begin Feb. 7, but a SUNY-ESF professor is hoping it will bring more attention to an endangered species, which is the mascot of the games.

“The snow leopard was chosen because of its mystique in terms of what it represents to us – strength, stealth, endurance, and beauty – all important attributes for success in the winter Olympics,” said Dr. James Gibbs, an environmental and forest biology professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in an email.

The animal is extremely fast and agile but is now restricted to the tallest mountains in Russia, Gibbs said in a Public Radio International interview. It has been pushed to the tops of treeless, barren areas where it can’t find prey to eat, he added.

Only about 40 snow leopards remain in Russia, Gibbs said, adding that Russia once hosted a large portion of the species’ range. Gibbs said he is hopeful that the remaining Russian snow leopards can be saved with enough effort and perseverance.

“There’s a heavy Chinese appetite for snow leopard pelts and trophy consumptive use,” said James Arrigoni, one of Gibbs’ graduate students, who recently studied the snow leopards’ prey in the Altai Republic.

Arrigoni said Argali lambs make up part of the snow leopard’s diet, but the lambs are being hunted in Russia, causing a ripple effect in the ecosystem and killing off the snow leopards. This problem has become more acute lately as globalization increases, but people have been herding livestock into the snow leopard’s range for “as long as anyone knows,” he added.

But the laws in Russia are not helping the situation. In certain areas of Russia, Arrigoni said, herders can pay about $50,000 to hunt snow leopards.

“There have been some changes in federal legislation to increase the control on poaching and wildlife trade,” said Mikhail Paltsyn, another student of Gibbs’, who works collaboratively with the World Wildlife Fund in Russia and the Roosevelt Wildlife Station at ESF.

Paltsyn, a Russian citizen, said Russian legislation made an important amendment to enforce control of illegal snow leopard trading, but it still needs improvement. He added that government control in Russia is so weak that local people can still poach without facing repercussions by the government.

Paltsyn said he is hopeful that the Sochi Olympics can raise awareness of the endangered species. Increasing awareness of snow leopard endangerment in Russian communities is crucial, he added.

Paltsyn said people often know very little about snow leopards, but that the Olympics could highlight the economic interest of conserving the species. The economic interest can then bring tourism and special programs for local people, who can perhaps help the populations of snow leopards instead of poaching them, he said.

In the PRI interview, Gibbs said he hopes the Olympics will raise awareness of the endangered species, adding that it will take a lot of effort to bring enough attention to create change.

“Perhaps there will be a rise in giving to the wildlife conservation groups that are pushing ahead snow leopard conservation throughout the species range where central governments do so little,” Gibbs said in the email. “We need to stop snare poaching, protect the species snow leopards need for food and help the very poor people who live amongst snow leopards and sometimes bear the costs of doing so in terms of lost livestock.”

Arrigoni, however, said he is wary of the ability of large events to promote conservation. He said he does not believe there will be a flood of funds into snow leopard conservation. Wildlife, such as the snow leopard, look great as a symbol or motif for an event, he said, but it is rare that people actually make that next step toward conservation.

Said Arrigoni: “It’s nice anytime you have public awareness or recognition of nature and conservation, but what difference will it actually make?”

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