Snow leopards in Russia, the spectacular Altai mountains

April 5, 2010

Spectacular Altai Mountains in Siberia. Photo The Altai Project.

I’ve become very interested in the Altai region in Russia recently because it’s snow leopard habitat and it’s likely I’ll be there this July. I’ve been trying to find the word the local people use for snow leopard and got an email from Jennifer Castner, the Director of the Altai Project.

But first, where is the Altai you might ask, as I did when I first heard about it. Well, it’s the unique and diverse mountain region of southern Siberia. And parts of the Altai have been declared a natural UNESCO World Heritage site for their importance in the preservation of endangered mammals, such as snow leopard, the Altai argali (a wild sheep) and the Siberian Ibex (wild goat). There are also some very ancient archaeological remains.

Altai Mountains from the air. Photo by Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO.

There’s a lot of pressures on this spectacular area, from gas pipelines to inappropriate development and underemployment of many of the local population. The Altai Project (based in California) is a small organisation working to ‘strengthen communities and protect nature in the Altai’. They’re working with local people and supporters from all over the world to protect the natural and cultural heritage and ways of life in the face of these challenges.

Archaeological remains in the Golden Mountains of Altai. Photo by Gary Tepfer UNESCO

One of the goals of The Altai Project is nature conservation, which includes endangered wildlife like the snow leopard. And like most snow leopard habitats, there is very little hard data on how many cats remain and the best way to support them in that region.

Jennifer is an expert on this remote part of the world. She’s lived and studied in Moscow and lived and worked in Kiev and is fluent in Russian. She’s travelled extensively in Siberia and the Russian Far East and Ukraine.

Here’s her explanation for the terms for snow leopard used by various peoples in this part of the world.

Jennifer – “I noticed (on the Saving Snow Leopard’s Blog) that you’ve been trying to figure out the term for snow leopard in Russian, and I’ve been rather idly wondering about the exact etymology of the terms I know. 🙂 In the Altaian range of their habitat, they seem to refer to them mostly as “(snezhny) bars”, but also as “irbis.”

I hunted around a bit online to better understand the differences. Neither word is actually Russian in origin, which I knew. ‘Snezhny’ is a Russian adjective means ‘snowy’. That’s easy.

‘Bars’ seems to come to Russian from Iranian/Persian (and possibly further back from a Turkic language, depending on where you look. It seems to refer to any big cat, but generally is used for ‘snow leopard’ and is in common use across Russia. (The Amur leopard is called a ‘leopard’ in Russian. ‘Tigr’ for tiger.)

‘Irbis” is definitely a Turkic word for snow leopard or just panther/big cat. It’s the term used in the Altaian language and probably some of the other indigenous (Turkic) peoples living in historic snow leopard habitat. I think it’s more localized in use, but still recognizable to many people who know their wildlife.”

Thanks Jennifer. ‘Snezhny’ for snow is good to know, although I think in July there won’t be too much of that when I go, but ‘Bars’ is a useful word in any-one’s language!


Mother and cubs photographed for first time in Tuva

March 17, 2010

First ever photos of snow leopards in Tuva, Russia. A mother and two cubs. Photo taken by Alexander Kuksin.

The first Russian-Mongolian research expedition to study snow leopard numbers in the Republic of Tuva ( tiny republic in the south of Russia) took the first ever photographs of snow leopards in that region.

The team found 14 tracks of the cats on the Tsagan-Shibetu ridge in the western part of the country just in the last few weeks. The photos include an adult female with her two grown cubs.

A close up of snow leopard in the tiny Republic of Tuva, southern part of Russia. First ever photos of snow leopards taken there last week. Photo by Alexander Kuksin.

Next month the research will continue across the border in Mongolia. Meanwhile the Russian team, along with WWF is also working on the possibility of eco-tourism in the region to support the local people in this remote part of the world where there is little in the way of employment. This is truly good news about snow leopard numbers in this region, a  hope that although numbers are small, they may be increasing.

Read more about Tuva and see a map at Wikipedia.

Russian borscht recipe…Russia is also home to snow leopards

January 6, 2010

The Borscht I made today. A very easy recipe and the soup is delicious.

Late last year when this blog celebrated its first birthday I said I’d cook a recipe from every country that has snow leopards (12 of them.) So far I’ve posted a Mongolian recipe – Buuz, a savoury pastry filled with meat and Tibetan Khapseys – a  Tibetan New Year bread like donut.

Russia is another country with snow leopards, current estimates around 100 cats although this number has not been confirmed for some years. The southwestern Siberian Republic of Altai has prime snow leopard habitat although poaching unfortunately is still happening with helicopters being used for illegal shooting of the cats and their prey, the big Argali. See story here.

But to get back to the recipe…..there are more Borscht recipes than there are Russian grandmothers and naturally everyone believes theirs to be the best. This one is a very simple one, evolved from one of my German grandmothers who made some great soups. Like most Borscht it can be eaten either hot or cold, although I prefer hot, the flavour being more tangy. I also like the fact that most of the vegetable in this recipe is beet, a flavour I really like and don’t get to eat too often.

You can adapt this simple recipe with other vegetables depending on what you have in your kitchen at the time. As well as Russia there are many other countries that have Borscht including Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania.

6-8 beetroots, cut small and cubed
oil for braising (I use olive)
1 sliced onion
½ litre stock (you can use beef but I prefer chicken – homemade is always best but sometimes bought stock is more practical)
Handfull of chopped cabbage
2 carrots, sliced finely (optional)
2 potatoes sliced and cubed (optional)
1 diced tomato (optional)
Salt and pepper, sour cream and parsley

Braise sliced onions in oil and add cubed beetroots and chopped cabbage, braise for a few minutes. Add stock and turn up heat until boiling.If you have any optional vegetables add them now. Turn heat down and simmer for 45 mins. Add salt and pepper to taste. When cooked through you can serve with a big dollop of sour cream and sprinkle parsley on top. Eat with crusty baguette or to be authentically Russian a big piece of black sourdough or Pumpernickel!

Optional. When all ingredients are cooked and before you add the sour cream you can puree the soup with a blender. I like to do this as it makes it thick and creamy. Bon Appetit J

Mistaken identity – Putin not releasing snow leopards

October 3, 2009
Persian leopard about to be released into a reserve near Sochin, Russia as PM Vladimir Putin looks on. Photo by AP, Alexei Druzhinin.
Persian leopard about to be released into a reserve near Sochin, Russia as PM Vladimir Putin looks on. Photo by AP, Alexei Druzhinin.

There’s been a lot of confused stories recently about Russian PM Vladimir Putin releasing snow leopards into a wildlife reserve as part of the promises in the lead up to the 2014 winter olympics. The animals are actually NOT snow leopards but Persian leopards. Recent media reports said that Putin released two snow leopards imported from Turkmenistan into the reserve near Sochi where the Winter Olympics will be held. This picture from AP wires clearly shows the beautiful cat is not a snow leopard. We wish the beautiful cats a good life in this reserve and the plan is to breed them and release any offspring into the wild, a very optimistic undertaking. I’m not sure if this has been done before. Certainly it’s never been possible to do it with snow leopards before but who knows, perhaps some day?