The snow leopard is so rare and elusive that it’s commonly known as the “ghost of the mountains”. But researchers in the Altai mountains, where the borders of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China converge, are increasingly coming face to face with this endangered animal through a growing network of camera traps.
On a recent day in Sailyugem national park in Russia’s Altai Republic, rangers in ski goggles and huge parkas were retrieving footage from a high-altitude camera trap – a black box holding a dozen AA batteries, a memory card and a motion-activated lens – nestled among a cluster of dark burgundy rocks covered with orange and green lichen. Such windswept ridges are where snow leopards typically travel in search of prey such as ibex and musk deer, sneaking down from above to break the victim’s neck with one crunch of their powerful jaws.
“When camera traps appeared recently it was a huge boost because scientists got their hands not just on footprints but on photographs of the leopard itself, so we can identify individuals and their area of distribution,” said the park’s assistant director, Denis Malikov.