In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. James Gibbs of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry explains the plight of the snow leopard.
James Gibbs is a professor of vertebrate conservation biology and Associate Chair of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He is also Director of the Roosevelt Wildlife Station, a facility tasked with delivering the science and trained professionals required to preserve wildlife heritage and save endangered species. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University.
Dr. James Gibbs – Saving the Snow Leopard
The plight of the snow leopard is receiving some attention around the world with the species as the mascot of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The snow leopard never has occurred anywhere near Sochi but does occur far to the east in southcentral Siberia where Russia, Kaz, Chi and Mongolia meet in the Altai Mountains. As globalization unfolds, rich people in big cities are suddenly providing a market for poor local poachers who previously couldn’t connect with demand. Poachers, who can sell their skins for $20 to $30 thousand in Moscow or Beijing, have pushed the snow leopards to higher and higher elevations onto barren mountaintops. At the same time overhunting of ibex and mountain sheep, the usual prey of the snow leopards has forced snow leopards, to seek alternatives like the livestock of area herders. Their numbers have been dwindling. Still, a collaborative effort of conservation biologists from the U.S. and Russia has made some progress.
Five years ago, I would’ve said it’s hopeless but now we’re finding ways to control poaching and provide economic opportunities for these desperately poor local herders. In recent years a handful of snow leopards have been re-populating the Altai Republic in Russia most likely coming from Kazakhstan. With the snow leopard as the official mascot of the games there is added publicity, which is good but the challenge is transferring that goodwill and that attention into the resources that actually get down to the level where they’re needed to make a difference. And you make a difference for snow leopards in ways you might not think: developing markets for women to sell handicrafts so they don’t rely on their husbands to poach to provide school and medical fees for their children, providing petrol and vehicle parts for anti-poaching patrols, and supporting biologists to be out there in the -40 C weather figuring out what’s going on.