Marco Werman: The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are just a month away. The mascot for the games is the snow leopard. Vladimir Putin said it was chosen because it's "strong, powerful, fast and beautiful." But the snow leopard is also close to extinction in Russia. James Gibbs is a wildlife biologist who studies many animals, including the snow leopard. He’s at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. So James, first, tell us about the snow leopard. How big are they? How fast are they, really?
James Gibbs: Yeah, they are extremely elegant and agile animals, aided dramatically by that long tail that they use for balance as they leap over crags and down cliffs, pursuing their prey, especially ibex. They are, as Putin indicated, a great symbol of strength and persistence, living in incredibly harsh environments, but they are indeed extremely rare now in Russia.
Werman: What is their natural habitat? What are those harsh environments?
Gibbs: Yeah, they are now restricted to the tallest of the mountains in the Altai-Sayan region, where Russia meets Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. They've been pushed up to the tops of treeless, barren, vast areas of mountaintops, although previously, they would go down into river bottoms and down into forests where there’s a lot more animals to eat, but now they’re restricted to these high mountain areas. They blend in just perfectly into this rocky environment.
Werman: So how many snow leopards are left, and what pushed them close to extinction?
Gibbs: That’s a very good question. We’re struggling even with that basic question of how many. There would appear to be perhaps 40 or so snow leopards left in all of Russia. People don’t usually think about Russia as a habitat for snow leopards, but it did once host a very large fraction of the species’ range. What they’re really struggling now from is poaching. There’s a big market for snow leopard parts and skins, and basically wealth and of the big cities colliding with extreme poverty of these rural, remote areas where the leopards occur. Local herders who are desperate to make a living will get a very small amount for spending, oh even a month snaring a snow leopard, but eventually someone will pay $20-30 thousand for that skin in Moscow or Beijing. The other issue is that there is some over-hunting of the creatures that snow leopards eat, especially ibex and the massive mountain sheep that occurs in this region called the argali, and that then forces the snow leopards to look for other things to eat which are herders’ animals and that gets them into trouble with corals and sheep, and creates conflicts there.
Werman: Some of our listeners may recall the book by Peter Matthiessen, â€œThe Snow Leopardâ€, which tells about a trek to find these animals in the Himalayas. Are there more snow leopards in other parts of the area?
Gibbs: Yes, that is an absolutely wonderful book, and it describes the snow leopard in really the central part of its range. The species has a vast range, much of it in China of all places, and a good chunk in Russia, but down to Nepal and elsewhere.
Werman: So you said there were 40, more or less, in Russia. Do you have a sense of how many snow leopards are outside of Russia?
Gibbs: That’s also a bit of an unknown, despite all the interest, but maybe there areâ€¦ I see estimates from two to four thousand. It’s an amazing creature. They have probably always been naturally very rare. They have a remarkable ability to move quickly and find one another through a whole scent-marking system that they use, sort of a snow leopards’ Facebook â€“ But it’s very effective for them. But they do have a massive range, all the way from Nepal up into Russia.
Werman: Yeah, the snow leopard Facebook. Can the population in Russia be restored, or is it too late?
Gibbs: You know, if you asked me that question five years ago, I would have said it’s hopeless. But with my colleagues Mikhail Paltsyn and Sergei Spitsyn, we are actually witnessing using ways to control poaching, provide alternatives for these desperately poor local herders to make a living, we are actually seeing a return of snow leopards and what was once Russia’s healthiest population, probably 40 to 50 animals in the [Arg??] river valley decimated to zero, and we now seem to think there’s about 7 snow leopards back. They've immigrated in from Kazakhstan and now they’re breeding. We just got photographs in October from one of our game cameras that shows two cubs playing in front of the camera, just beautiful, but very gratifying. So now I’m hopeful. It can be done with enough effort and perseverance. Sergei, I believe, is out there right now in negative 40 degree Celsius weather, trying to keep track of what’s going on. But they can recover if these pressures are taken away, they can breed quite prolifically if just given the chance.
Werman: Wow. So James, you’re telling us a good news story here from the environment world. Do you think now that the snow leopard is the mascot of the upcoming Winter Games, will that help raise awareness even further?
Gibbs: I would like to think so. Yes, all the more attention to the plight of this creature is good. The challenge of course is then transferring and converting that good-will and that attention into resources that actually get down to the level where they’re really needed to make a difference, so I’m very hopeful. I think this is a good thing. We’d like to think it will eventually help snow leopards.
Werman: James Gibbs, a wildlife biologist at the State University of New York: Thank you very much! Great to speak with you.
Gibbs: My pleasure. Thank you.