Kazakhstan: Snow leopard “selfie” marks step toward conservation

tea farmers in China
Vladimir Vorobyov installs a photo-trap to monitor snow leopards and other wildlife in Katon-Karagai National Park /Photo Sergey Starikov

Vladimir Vorobyov has found his dream job, combining two great passions: nature and photography. “I love mountains. I like to roam around, hike and watch nature in its beauty,” Vladimir says. “Photography is my passion and hobby. I take pictures of places and animals in the national park and give them to the park’s administration so they can use them for informational and scientific purposes.”

Vladimir was born in Katon-Karagai village in the East Kazakhstan district, where Katon-Karagai National Park was established in 2001. Today this special protection area (SPA) is the biggest national park in Kazakhstan and part of the Altai-Sayan Eco-region, which sprawls into China, Mongolia and Russia.

Highlights

  • Listed as “endangered” on the Red List of Threatened Species, the snow leopard is viewed as an indicator for the health of mountain ecosystems in Central and South Asia.
  • With funding from the GEF Small Grants Programme, the Snow Leopard Fund was able to purchase 50 photo-traps and other equipment to strengthen wildlife monitoring in East Kazakhstan.
  • The photo-traps have captured more than 3,000 images of various species, including the first clear shot of the elusive snow leopard in Katon-Karagai National Park.
  • The project also aims to raise awareness and encourage local participation in biodiversity conservation.
  • As part of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP), UNDP supports measures to address threats to the snow leopard across all 12 range countries.

As a technician for the National Hydro-meteorological Service, Vladimir measures snow and other precipitation in the mountains. His work regularly takes him into the Katon-Karagai National Park, where the endangered snow leopard (panthera uncia) is known to roam.

Recently Vladimir added another item to his list of duties: collecting photographic evidence of threatened wildlife. He was one of 60 local people who took part in GEF-sponsored trainings on methods for monitoring snow leopards and other rare species using photo-traps, GPS and GIS technologies.

The training was conducted by the Snow Leopard Fund (SLF), the first NGO in Kazakhstan to work in the field of snow leopard conservation. With support from UNDP in Kazakhstan and funding from the GEF Small Grants Programme, SLF was able to purchase 50 photo-traps and corresponding equipment for use within three East Kazakhstan SPAs.

In the first several months after the photo-traps were installed, they snapped more than 3,000 images of various species, including the first clear shot of a snow leopard in Katon-Karagai National Park. Previously there was no visual proof of snow leopards in the park, only eye-witnesses reports, footprints and droppings. Among the other animals who “took selfies” with photo-traps are Altai snowcock and several other species that are prey for the snow leopard, suggesting that food resources are sufficient for the snow leopard to thrive.

Now when he makes his rounds, Vladimir checks to see what new images the candid cameras have captured. “The advantage of photo-traps is that they take pictures all the time, at day and night, in any weather conditions, and animals do not get scared of them,” he says. “Yeah, they are not always good from an artistic point of view, but they do well by capturing all that moves, including poachers.”

A photo trap image of the elusive snow leopard in East KazakhstanCaptured by a photo trap, this snow leopard "selfie" will help experts develop conservation strategies.

Strengthening biodiversity monitoring in East Kazakhstan is just one way UNDP is working to ensure the stability of the global snow leopard population while protecting the livelihoods of people living in or near its range. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, GEF-funded projects are working to establish new protected areas and enhance the effectiveness of existing enforcement and surveillance systems.

Other projects aim to enhance management capacity and cross-border cooperation for the protection of trans-boundary snow leopard landscapes. UNDP also participates in the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP), an international coalition to address threats to the snow leopard across all 12 range countries.

A rich photo portfolio is essential for biodiversity monitoring in the SPAs and for raising awareness of and participation in conservation efforts. “Awareness of the acute need of biodiversity conservation has risen among locals” in East Kazakhstan, according to Vladimir. “Before the park was established I used to be a hunter, but I’ve changed and so I’ve changed my gun for a camera.”

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