A Far Eastern leopard cub© Far Eastern Leopards autonomous non-profit organisation
02 March 2018

Yelena Gangalo: System-wide efforts are required to save rare species

3 March marks World Wildlife Day. It is a holiday for those who are engaged in preserving rare animal species. In 2017, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Russian nature reserves and the fifth anniversary of Land of the Leopard National Park. Last year, we also received a wonderful gift: 15 Far Eastern leopard cubs were born!

The Far Eastern Leopards autonomous non-profit organisation is preparing for the new 2018 field season projects. In February and March, winter track counts are held at all protected areas, including those in the Far East. One of the main tasks is to monitor large wild cats: the Amur tiger and the Far Eastern leopard. The newly received data will be included in the many-year research and will help us understand more about the number of the rare spotted and striped predators.

The current stage of the ambitious work to restore the Far Eastern leopard population in Russia began in 2008, when a new federal sanctuary, Leopardovy, was established. In 2012, Land of the Leopard National Park was founded in the Primorye Territory. The national park covers an area of 262,000 hectares and includes the territory of the Leopardovy Nature Sanctuary, the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve and the adjacent forest and land areas. In the past 10 years, due to the consolidated efforts of state environmental agencies as well as research and public environmental organisations, the leopard population has begun to grow.

Now Far Eastern leopards inhabit the southwestern Primorye Territory and the border regions of China. Using rare wild cat population modelling, researchers estimate the Russian population of the Far Eastern leopard at 90 animals. Some of these animals roam free between Russia and China. Alongside research in Russia, our Chinese colleagues are counting the leopards in their country. According to their estimates, the total number of Far Eastern leopards in China, both who live there permanently and those with "dual citizenship," is 42 animals. This research should continue, and Far Eastern Leopards will support the efforts to find out more accurate information, including about the stability and well-being of the breeding population. In the future, the results of Russian and Chinese research will help the countries join efforts in preserving the world's rarest cat.

Today we would like to remind our readers about the main stages of our work and to update them on our future plans. To do so, we bring you an interview with Yelena Gangalo, general director of the Far Eastern Leopards autonomous non-profit organisation.

Question: Ms Gangalo, here is a traditional question: when and how did you get the idea to establish Far Eastern Leopards? How did you manage to get the top government officials involved in its work?

Yelena Gangalo: Our organisation was founded in 2011; its Supervisory Board is chaired by Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport Sergei Ivanov. He was well aware of the issue of Far Eastern leopard conservation: starting in 2007, as Russian deputy prime minister, he supervised this issue and supported the initiatives of researchers and environmentalists to save the leopard population in the Far East. It was his idea to establish Far Eastern Leopards.

Question: What were the most important measures you took to solve this huge problem of saving the rarest animal from going extinct in the wild?

Yelena Gangalo: First and foremost, the key areas inhabited by Far Eastern leopards in Primorye came under a high level of protection. When this work began, the southwestern Primorye Territory had the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve (which is rather small), the Barsovy Federal Sanctuary and the Borisovskoye Plateau Regional Sanctuary. All of these three protected areas were managed by different agencies, which hampered environmental efforts. At the same time, research showed that Primorye had vast areas inhabited by the leopard that did not have the status of a protected area. 

We needed to find the best possible solution to unite all these areas and manage them, which we did. In 2008, the Leopardovy Nature Sanctuary was established on the basis of the Barsovy and Borisovskoye Plateau sanctuaries. Together with Primorye's oldest nature reserve, Kedrovaya Pad, it formed an integrated cluster of protected areas which included a significant part of the key habitat of the Far Eastern leopard. Then, on 5 April 2012, the Russian Government issued a resolution to create Land of the Leopard National Park. The support of the top government officials significantly eased the time-consuming bureaucratic process. The establishment of a protected area in the national park in 2013 also helped protect the leopard.

Then we found out that creating comfortable conditions for reproduction meant establishing protection, making sure the animals have enough food and protecting the areas suitable for their living. Now we are talking about 90 animals. We were overjoyed at the new additions; 15 cubs were born in the national park in 2017! Maybe the leopards themselves decided to mark the fifth anniversary of Land of the Leopard. I should also note that Land of the Leopard is also home to one of the largest groups of Amur tigers in the Far Eastern protected areas, about 30 animals.

Question: Please tell us more about the contribution of Far Eastern Leopards to the common task of protecting the leopard.

Yelena Gangalo: It would not be an overstatement if I say that nothing happens without our participation. We assist research and monitoring of the Far Eastern leopard population in the federal protected areas and the adjacent territories. There are many dimensions to this project, but here is a simple fact: we are helping to expand the system of camera traps at Land of the Leopard. They provide us with the most important data for population monitoring. The more motion-sensor cameras watch the rare cats, the more data researchers receive for analysis. There are about 400 camera traps as of now; they cover an area of 360,000 hectares. It is an unprecedented number for Russia. We will continue to assist with this research.

We do a lot to maintain a healthy supply of prey for the spotted predator by feeding wild ungulates. One of our priorities is counteracting the key human-caused factors that threaten leopards: poaching and wildfires. We provide modern equipment and gear to the security service at Land of the Leopard and provide funds to inspectors.

In September 2017, in the village of Barabash, the Primorye Territory, we opened the new central compound at Land of the Leopard. It is a complex of buildings built to a special design as part of the federal targeted investment programme. At the same time, Far Eastern Leopards made a big contribution to the design and financing of the facility. The new central compound is first and foremost a modern research, environmental and educational facility. In particular, it will host various conferences, seminars and many other events.

In March 2016, the Narvinsky Tunnel opened on a road that divides Land of the Leopard and the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve. The tunnel, built with our assistance, is Russia's first such tunnel made to minimise the impact of the road on the populations of large predators: Far Eastern leopards and Amur tigers. This project has totally proved its worth: tigers and leopards are making good use of this eco-tunnel. We are going to initiate the construction of more overpasses; they are crucial for moving Far Eastern leopards into new areas.

In 2017, Far Eastern Leopards received an unexpected gift: two land plots in the Khasan District of the Primorye Territory with a total area of 12,000 hectares were given to us by a businessman. The organisation's Supervisory Board decided to add these land plots to the national park as a research cluster and an educational tourism area.

We are also doing a great deal of work to raise awareness of Far Eastern leopard conservation: we work with the media, hold news conferences and organise exhibitions and other events. With our help, the Zhivaya Planeta (Living Planet) TV channel made the wonderful documentary film LEO80: A Leopard's Story. On 27 August 2017, Moscow's Krasnaya Presnya Park hosted Leopard Day, an exuberant environmental festival, for the first time. Over 30,000 people came just in one day! This annual festival is definitely going to become a new tradition in the city. We also held an interesting campaign together with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Vladivostok: a Far Eastern leopard is now overlooking the city from Orlinoye Gnezdo (Eagle's Nest) Hill, the highest point in Vladivostok's historical centre. The graffiti mural featuring the world's rarest wild cat was created by famous South African graffiti artist Sonny.

Question: All this work is quite impressive. But there are probably many problems left to be solved in order to guarantee a sustainable Far Eastern leopard population.

Yelena Gangalo: Absolutely. Today, there are at least 90 Far Eastern leopards, according to scientists. The subspecies successfully passed its survival threshold. But this is only the first good result. Systemic efforts are needed to maintain success and create a sustainable population of at least 120 Far Eastern leopards in the wild. It is a guarantee of their survival.

That is why it is crucial to continue the efforts to counteract poaching, protect leopards' prey base — wild ungulates (which requires a professional approach to biotechnical activity), and minimise the threat of wildfires. It is no less important to prevent the deaths of wild animals from various diseases, because a sudden epizootic outbreak might ruin all our efforts in a short period of time. Our organisation is going to fund the development of veterinary medicine in the wild. To that end, we have begun cooperation with the best experts both in Russia and the world.

But all told, Far Eastern leopards need new areas to expand to in order to reach a sustainable population. The number of wild cats, according to experts, has reached its limit within the current borders of Land of the Leopard. Therefore, researchers are considering potential measures to return the Far Eastern leopard to other areas in Primorye. I am talking about the developed idea of reintroducing the leopard in the Lazovsky Nature Reserve, and the possibility of bringing them to the Ussuri Nature Reserve and the surrounding area, and the possible expansion of Land of the Leopard.

Real international cooperation also serves this purpose, first of all, cooperation with the research and environmental agencies of the People's Republic of China. Our organisation is currently taking concrete steps to promote the process of creating a large cross-border Russian-Chinese reserve, which will protect the habitat of Far Eastern leopards and Amur tigers.

Question: Could you please speak in more detail about this project?

Yelena Gangalo: In today's world, there are about 100 interstate cross-border protected areas that serve as an efficient mechanism of international cooperation in the preservation of the biological and landscape diversity of the areas that are divided by state borders. Russian-Chinese cooperation is no exception: in the past 10 years, two intergovernmental agreements have been signed and implemented on the creation of such cross-border reserves (around Lake Khanka and in the Daurian steppe).

In 2011, the Russian Government approved a draft agreement between our countries to establish a cross-border reserve comprising Russian areas (where Land of the Leopard and Kedrovaya Pad are located) and the Chinese reserves located near the border. Unfortunately, further preparation of such an agreement slowed down, but now it is time to get back to that question. First, in the past few years Russian and Chinese researchers have been cooperating very actively in research and monitoring of large cats in the border areas. Second, the Chinese Government has recently taken a decision to reorganise the network of protected areas that border the Primorye Territory and to create the integrated national park of the tiger and the leopard with a total area of 1.5 million hectares in the Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. Taking into account the importance of protected areas on the Russian-Chinese border for the protection of rare and endangered animal and plant species, it made sense to promptly begin discussing proposals on the creation of a Russian-Chinese cross-border reserve with our Chinese colleagues.

Question: Far Eastern Leopards asked the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to name Land of the Leopard after Professor Nikolai Vorontsov. Could you please comment on this initiative?

Yelena Gangalo: Our system of protected areas was created by amazing people — field biologists, explorers who considered field work part of their fundamental research. We know the names of these people who put all of their knowledge and weight into environmental efforts. Among these people was Professor Nikolai Vorontsov (DSc in Biology). He was a Russian scientist who made a great contribution to zoological research and evolution theory. One of the most important periods of his life is linked to the Far East: in the early 1970s, he headed the Institute of Biology and Soil at the Far Eastern Research Centre of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The institute managed two of the academy's nature reserves. At his initiative and with his participation, the area of the Ussuri Nature Reserve was expanded by 2.5 times in 1972. Vorontsov also paid great attention to the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve, which was the only protected area engaged in Far Eastern leopard conservation. Vorontsov supported its environmental activity and helped develop biology research in the nature reserve. Under his leadership, the most important research was conducted on the biodiversity of the Russian Far East, a region which at the time was a blank spot for researchers.

Nikolai Vorontsov is also known as a public figure: he chaired the USSR State Committee for Environmental Protection, and later he was appointed Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of the USSR (the first environmental minister in the country's history). While doing these high-level jobs, Vorontsov considered nature reserve management a priority in the state environmental policy. He promoted this area in his subsequent political and public activity while serving as a people's deputy of Russia, a State Duma deputy, and chairman of GLOBE-Russia (the Russian branch of the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment).

The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment supports this project; you can read about it on its website.

Russia has a long-standing tradition of memorialising prominent scientists, environmental workers and politicians who contributed to the preservation of the biological and landscape diversity by giving their names to protected natural areas or agencies that manage them. We believe that our proposal to eternalise the memory of Professor Vorontsov is a good way to carry on this tradition.

Question: It is obvious that the efforts of state agencies alone are not enough for efficient environmental activity in a large country. At the same time, other countries create non-governmental national funds that accumulate donations and implement important projects aimed at protecting nature. What is Russia doing in this regard?

Yelena Gangalo: Large international environmental agencies such as WWF, Greenpeace and IFAW have branches in Russia and they function quite successfully, but in my opinion, we do lack a specialised national fund.

Yes, in the past few years Russia has created a number of autonomous non-profit organisations engaged in collecting extra-budgetary funds to support events to preserve specific animal species (Far Eastern Leopards and the Amur Tiger Centre are among them). But at the same time, it would be good to switch from non-state support of flagship species conservation to more systemic work to protect rare species in general.

I think that it would be reasonable to establish a national non-governmental charity foundation in Russia that would specialise in the preservation of biological and landscape diversity. Its priority objectives would be the protection and recreation of the engendered animal and plant species population and their key habitats, first of all, in protected areas.

Question: In most countries, environmental responsibility is a trend for large businesses. In your opinion, is Russian business ready to get more involved?

Yelena Gangalo: It is absolutely obvious that effective efforts to preserve biodiversity require significant funds, and this requires support from the business community. Such practices are used throughout the entire civilised world, and in Russia they are being developed too. Many Russian companies now understand well that an environmentally responsible image is not just a popular trend but a means to increase competitiveness.

We all know that a company's environmental ranking is an important index of business efficiency. Companies that began to use this instrument earlier than others are more successful on the market. If they want to look good, they need to be socially and environmentally responsible. It would be easier for such a company to communicate with potential investors and to attract new clients. A "green" reputation has become a very effective element of sustainable development, and this is good news. For large businesses, environmental responsibility should be not just part of the image policy, but it must be backed up by real actions and projects with concrete results. In this regard, contributing to the conservation of rare and endangered species is a very rewarding activity both for the image and the concrete results.

In this sense, our project to protect and recover the population of the world's rarest cat is almost ideal. Everybody likes it and wants to help. When big businesses see the result of their efforts, they want to continue this work and to cooperate with non-profit organisations such as Far Eastern Leopards. We work with Russia's most successful companies such as Gazprom, Gazprombank, Sibur, SUEK, Sberbank and Russian Railways. In particular, Rossiya Airlines has supported leopard protection by promoting this unique project. Last spring, a Boeing aircraft with a Far Eastern leopard face painted on its nose, or the leo-craft, as the airline's staff call it, made its first flight. We are absolutely sure working with large businesses has a very good outlook in our country. We are very optimistic about the future.

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