Leopard in the snow

Snow leopards are called the ghosts of the mountains because it’s rare to see them in the wild. 

Sandy Brooks/500px/Getty Images

On the Hunt to Save a Species

People who once illegally preyed on snow leopards in Russia are now protecting the rare animals. 

Mergen Markov followed the paw prints in the snow. They led him high into the rugged mountains of Siberia, a remote, frigid region located mostly in Russia. Markov was hunting for snow leopards. If all went as planned, he would soon get the perfect shot of his target—with a camera.

It was 2013, and Markov had just been hired by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Scientists from the conservation organization had been trying to study snow leopards using camera traps. Each camera has a sensor that is triggered to take a photo when an animal moves past it. 

But snow leopards are shy creatures that avoid areas where humans tend to go. After two years, the scientists had only a handful of clear images.

Markov, however, knew exactly where to go to get the shots they wanted. In no time, cameras he had placed took stunning images of a snow leopard and her two cubs that had previously been unknown to the scientists.

© WWF Russia 

Mergen Markov holds a camera that captures photos of snow leopards.

What made Markov an expert on finding snow leopards? He used to hunt them illegally as a poacher. 

Markov is part of a WWF project that gives illegal hunters the chance to protect the animals they once preyed on. As a snow leopard guard, he doesn’t just take images of the animals. Markov also patrols their habitat and helps educate others in his village about the importance of preserving the species. 

“Snow leopards are so beautiful,” he says. “We share the land. We share the mountains. I don’t want to hurt them anymore.”

Animals at Risk

Though snow leopards are hard to find, they’re in danger from poachers. As few as 4,000 are left in the wild, according to the WWF. Hunters set wire traps to capture and kill the animals. Then they take their fur.

A snow leopard’s spotted pelt can fetch more than $600 in some parts of Asia, where it is used to make everything from clothing to rugs. For many hunters in remote villages, that’s enough money to live on for about two months.

© WWF Russia

Gotcha! A snow leopard looks into a camera trap in southern Russia.

Offering a Choice

To monitor snow leopards, scientists began setting camera traps throughout a national park in southern Russia about 10 years ago. But they soon realized they needed help. A WWF scientist suggested they persuade poachers to join their efforts.

Markov was one of the first poachers the WWF contacted. If one of his cameras takes a clear picture of a snow leopard, he receives a payment of about $600—the value of one pelt. Markov uses the money he earns to support his wife and daughter. He still considers himself a hunter, just a different kind of hunter.

“When I open the camera,” Markov says, “I’m eager to see what I caught.”

In 2021 alone, Markov and the other guards collected hundreds of snow leopard pictures with about 30 camera traps. 

The photos are helping scientists better understand snow leopards’ behavior and determine how many of the animals live in the region. And because the former hunters also patrol the area, poaching has decreased—while the number of snow leopards has increased.

Today, Markov has an appreciation for snow leopards that goes beyond earning a paycheck. He says one of the best parts of his job is that his daughter takes pride in what he does for a living.

“She likes hearing stories about my snow leopard expeditions,” he says. “I [hope] that she can see a snow leopard in the wild one day.”

1. Summarize the main ideas of the section “Animals at Risk.”

2. How does the author support the idea that the World Wildlife Fund program described in the article is helping snow leopards?

3. What is the purpose of the map on page 5?

Skills Sheets (2)
Skills Sheets (2)