Just in time for the Sochi Winter Olympics, a team of scientists has captured several rare, crystal clear images of a group of snow leopards, which have been selected as one of this year's Olympic mascots. Richard Bischof and his team spent years tracking the notoriously elusive animals through the Pakistani wilderness, setting up camera traps to get a few rare glimpses of the endangered big cat. These images add to snow leopards' increasing public exposure, which has grown since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) started promoting the species. Some researchers say the publicity could provide a helpful boost for conservation efforts.
According to James P. Gibbs, a conservation biologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, any publicity -- especially on an Olympic scale -- will benefit snow leopards, which are critically endangered in Russia. Although the species's natural habitat is thousands of miles away from the Sochi games, in the remote Altai region of Siberia, Gibbs says their inclusion in the Olympics is still a good thing.
(This year's Winter Olympics, however, are not without animal welfare concerns. The IOC recently drew criticism after Sochi Aquatoria confirmed that it would feature two captive orcas during the upcoming games; thousands of people have since signed multiple petitions urging the IOC to release the captured whales back into the wild.)
"All the more attention to the plight of [snow leopards] is good," Gibbs told Public Radio International. "The challenge, of course, is then transferring and converting that goodwill and that attention into resources that actually get down to the level where they're really needed to make a difference."
According to Gibbs, poaching has decimated Russia's snow leopard population over time; he suspects there are no more than 40 snow leopards in the entire country. Other parts of Central Asia are home to greater numbers of the wildcats, though the population is as low as 2,000 to 4,000 snow leopards worldwide. In Pakistan, where Bischof and his team study them, snow leopards are more numerous and, in theory, easier to study. But their elusive nature can actually hinder conservation efforts.
Bischof, who tracked the "ghost cats" using DNA analysis and non-invasive camera traps, told National Geographic that images of snow leopards are helpful for advancing a scientific understanding of the animals, but also for energizing the public about conservation efforts. "For wildlife ecologists, camera traps and other non-invasive methods are a valuable source of data," he said. "[But] camera trap photos of wildlife capture people's imagination. That in itself is valuable, as it can help raise awareness."
And when asked whether he thinks snow leopard populations will see an upswing in the next few years, Gibbs told PRI that he feels optimistic. "Five years ago, I would've said it's hopeless," he said. "[But now], we are actually witnessing ways to control poaching and provide alternatives for the desperately poor local herders to make a living." In Russia and elsewhere, Gibbs suggested, we have reason to be hopeful.