On the Trail of Russia's Leopards

Article excerpt

Along the eastern edge of Siberia, a band of scientists learns critical lessons from an endangered cat named Svetlana

July 1993. Female leopard, three or four years old, captured on the night of 23 June. Immobilization completed with blow gun injection. To put it mildly, ambient conditions during handling were a complete nightmare: 1) it was darker than the inside of a cow; 2) the slope was steeper than the west face of the Matterhorn; 3) nobody spoke the same language; 4) gnats left my face a bloody mess, and 5) giant moths accumulated whenever the flashlights were trained on one spot more than three seconds. Ah, the romantic life of wildlife field researcher. - Jack Whitman's field notes

This was the electronic mail passed on a computer disk through several hands and finally sent over electromagnetic passageways from the Russian port of Vladistok to those of us at the Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute in Idaho. Whitman and our Russian colleagues had for the first time anesthetized a wild Amur leopard, fitted it with a radio collar and released it. Only 30 to 40 of these leopards remained in their native habitat. Now that we finally had one collared, we could begin to study one of the rarest wild cats on Earth.

Our initial concern, which would keep us anxious for months, was to see whether Amur leopards required vast wilderness areas free of human intrusion. If, like North America's marbled murrelet or the northern spotted owl, or even the grizzly, they needed large tracts of wilderness, we could write off the Amur leopard and pen its requiem. In that case, all we could hope for was to document the creature scientifically and move on.

What we hoped to find instead was that the leopard could move comfortably amid human activity. Except in protected reserves, economic development is already beginning in this pan of Russia and is likely to increase. If the collared cat, which we named Svetlana, or Svetta for short, and other leopards roamed freely into these disturbed areas, we could find hope for leopards in this country. We knew that if the leopard could tolerate people, we could campaign to persuade people to tolerate the leopard.

We were working on the eastern edge of Siberia. To the Western world, the region is largely unknown, and, despite recent activity, it is still one of the least disturbed parts of the world's temperate climatic zone. As wildlife biologists, we were already cooperating with Russian scientists in the region on a study of Siberian tigers. For the leopard project, we chose as a study area the Kedrovia Pad Reserve and the surrounding countryside, straight across a bay and 40 kilometers (25 mi.) south of Vladivostok.

March 1992. To check proposed study area, drove to River Gadna. One tiger cub track in dyer bottom, one medium-sized tiger track and two scrapes on ridge.... Drove to River Eldega in afternoon, 25 kilometers [15 mi.] of worst road I've ever driven. The driver took War Wagon places I couldn't believe. Used winch attached to trees several times. Finally arrived at old hunter's cabin after 9 P.M. Late dinner of Dema's [Dimitry Pikunov's] famous boar borsch - delicious. Beautiful cat country. - Maurice Hornocker's field notes

In a multicultural, multinational project, team building is important because political and cultural wobbling or intransigence can work against you. We were pleased with the mix of Americans and Russians on the leopard project. From the Russian side, Pikunov and Victor Korkishko are the world's experts on the natural history of the Amur leopard. And with these scientists came a solid group of young field biologists ready to contribute. On our side came years of experience with field techniques. For thirty-plus years, one of us, Maurice Hornocker, has worked with mountain lions and other carnivores in North America. The other one, Howard Quigley, has studied jaguars, black bears and giant pandas as well as mountain lions. …