The Altai Project

Current initiative

Published March 2019

Photo of the a saker falcon looking at the camera.

The Altai Project (TAP) aims to link the protection of nature with sustainable livelihoods in the Greater Altai region. Between 2009 and 2015, TAP focussed its efforts on both snow leopard and raptor conservation and research. This included supporting campaigns to reroute a proposed pipeline, promote transparency and rule-of-law in mining projects, and providing small grants to long-term partners in the region to support conservation and Altaian indigenous lifestyles and practices.

Lead

Location

The Russian Altai region covers an area of around 93,239 km2 and is home to over 200,000 people.

Local indigenous peoples have managed to retain much of their traditional culture and lifestyles, with many practicing semi-nomadic livestock agriculture as well as subsistence hunting and fishing.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca , Saker Falcon Falco cherrug , Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis , Snow Leopard Panthera uncia

Products in trade

Live saker falcons are usually sold for tens of thousands of dollars to wealthy Middle Easterners who use them for falconry (hunting).

Snow leopards are poached for their skins, and their prey species are poached for trophies (e.g. argali).

Overview of the problem

Poaching is a major problem in the area.

- Live capture by poachers of saker falcons has decimated the bird’s population in Altai and much of its Central Asian range.

- Poaching with snares and other means is the biggest threat – even in the most inaccessible areas -  to the remaining small, but critical populations of snow leopards in the region.

Community members are involved along with other groups and snare poaching is entirely community initiated. In remote regions such as Altai, snaring may be the only source of income for a local family and given demand for animal parts trade can be quite profitable.

The anti-IWT initiative

The initiative is supporting scientific studies into these species as well as engaging with local communities to incentivise and improve their circumstances so they are less motivated to poach.

Raptors

Since 2011, TAP has collaborated with and supported local researchers on raptor conservation. Local ornithologists have surveyed thousands of kilometres of raptor habitat, marking nest sites, proximity to utility lines/towers, mortality and other details. When possible, they band fledglings and other birds to enable better tracking of specific individuals during dispersal and migration.

Local researchers also collaborate closely with relevant local NGOs and other organisations, to share data and explore trends. If electrocuted birds are found, the evidence is collected and complaints filed with the local authorities who collect fines from the responsible utility.

Snow leopards

As of 2014, fewer than 100 snow leopards remained in Russia. Scientists from local NGOs and others conducted extensive presence/absence and camera-trapping surveys to gain a more comprehensive understanding of snow leopard distribution and ecology in Altai and other parts of the species Russian habitat range. TAP collaborates with other local NGOs to provide financial support, technical and scientific expertise, and equipment, providing many camera-traps, developing and installing anti-poaching monitoring devices, designing data recording technology, and financially supporting numerous surveying and anti-poaching expeditions.

Since 1998, conservation and enforcement efforts in Altai have supported anti-poaching initiatives, including inter-agency anti-poaching brigades and Game Management Committee patrol teams. However, the vast area, limited staff, and other resources limit the effectiveness of patrols. In addition, the snow leopards’ range is largely outside of protected areas, leaving the animals vulnerable to poaching.

Several projects have been initiated to develop alternative income sources for local communities, however, residents living in remote areas often miss this opportunity. A large ecotourism development is aimed at increasing local economic benefits through wildlife conservation.

In particular, TAP supports snow leopard conservation by:

- Fundraising for local conservation, research, and enforcement activities

- Facilitating the development and testing of poacher detection systems

- Supporting ecotourism infrastructure development and marketing efforts

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts
Performance-based payments/incentives for patrolling or guarding
Un-paid (voluntary) community scouts
Monetary incentives for community intelligence
Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT
Other
Further detail

In addition to their roles as guides - because of their superb knowledge of the territory - and the hiring of their horses, a reformed hunters program employs locals to deploy camera-traps, track snow leopards and report intelligence on poaching.

They also occasionally participate in multi-lateral patrols with park ranger staff, regional enforcement, and border guards.

Between 2009-2015 the project employed four ex-hunters and the program continues today and has been replicated by partners, with around 10 people employed over the last few years.

Due to the security risks for ex-hunters (and their families) associated with reporting information on illegal activities, they are given a salary and report only information they are comfortable with.

Many of the park ranger staff are indigenous local residents.

A reward-based program was initiated as an incentive to stop poaching and to create peer pressure from within the communities. If a snow leopard is identified in a region where it hasn’t been seen before and is shown to be active and healthy, the individual receives an award.

Local partners have raised awareness about wildlife crime sanctions by distributing handbooks and brochures to the communities. Alongside this, if they encounter hunters they remind them about hunting rules.  

Camera traps have proven to be a disincentive as would-be poachers do not want to be ‘caught on camera’.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy’s work to strengthen cultural practices and beliefs has been key here, along with a now decade-old popular community-led Snow Leopard Festival that takes place across Altai every year (see education).

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Tourism
Other
Further detail

In 2011/12 an ecotourism development program called “Land of the Snow Leopard” began, with TAP providing fundraising support, funding for associated infrastructure, translation, and marketing.

The snow leopard has become a brand for the region and is used by both community-owned businesses (e.g. B&Bs, souvenirs, recreational tourism, etc.) and larger commercial businesses.

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support
Provision of community-level benefits
Further detail

Alternative livelihood projects have been supported by partners, for example, WWF Altai had a micro-grant program that helped people develop their businesses, including helping farmers purchase livestock or equipment.

From 1998-2009 TAP project did some work around alternative energy, including supporting small technology grants and scholarships for people to move to the US. Communities are now able to produce their own electricity using solar and wind power.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

Partners have initiated significant programs for education and outreach targeted at indigenous pastoralist residents and hunters.

Over the last 8-9 years, partners have organised snow leopard festivals in almost all of the villages within the species habitat, with a large festival held in the capital in September. It is a very popular event, with people coming from within the region and from other parts of the snow leopard range (including internationally). The event has proved to be a powerful voice in promoting the snow leopard brand and making sure people understand its importance.

Has the initiative made a difference?

In 2010, when surveys began, only 4 snow leopards were detected in the entire region. In 2018, 36 individuals were identified. Sightings were not only by the camera-traps but also by communities and tourists. The snow leopard population is becoming healthier, has extended to new areas, and the number of poaching incidents has dramatically decreased. In particular, the camera traps have made people fearful of acting illegally and snare issues have significantly decreased.

However, incidents of poaching are probably increasing for the saker falcon.

What works and why

Community buy-in, engagement, and participation are absolutely critical to conservation successes. Local residents have expert knowledge of the landscape and animals within it. In addition, their cultural and spiritual practices also strongly value the presence of and connection to wild animals and sacred spaces - a critical factor in community-led conservation successes.

The importance of working and communicating as much as possible in the larger network of groups was crucial to early success. The key was working in partnership with both big and very small NGOs, and establishing a very trusting two-way communication channel.

Factors for success

Supportive national policy/legislation on sustainable use of natural resources

Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

What doesn’t work and why

With the Russian government’s repression of civil society and difficult international geopolitical relations, it has become very difficult to work in the region and Russia as a whole.

Although Russia’s framework for conservation was quite strong in the 1990s and 2000s, there has always been inadequate funding and mechanisms for implementation, leading to short-term, project-based funding that was limited and sporadic.

Since 2012, the “Foreign Agent" law established by Putin's administration has led to very strong repression of civil society and NGOs across Russia, and especially in the Altai region. As a result, conservation NGOs become activists or small initiative groups, with no organisational infrastructure or compensation, taking greater risks, and sometimes ending up in dangerous situations, often discredited by the media.

TAP continues to support work in the region, but it’s more difficult to get money to the ground. In the US and Europe, funders are nervous about working in Russia, because they either don’t understand the situation or are worried about their own risks or the risks facing activists on the ground.

In the 2010s, the high degree of government-sponsored corruption and intentional destruction of environmental law, illegal activities proliferated within the vulnerable protected area network, including unsustainable mining, logging, other extractive industry practices, and poaching.

Government-supported corruption is a real barrier to success and is probably our single biggest challenge in term of long-term outcomes.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of coordinated and coherent sectoral policies/legislation (For example, land use planning, agricultural etc...)

Lack of long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Lack of devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Organisers, donors and partners

Partners include: Local researchers, local NGOs and local initiative groups/activists

Funders include: USFWS, Disney Conservation Fund, Trust for Mutual Understanding

For further information contact Jennifer Castner (jennifer@altaiproject.org).