What I Have Heard and Seen of the Snow Leopard
(Letter from a reader, A. Kachakov, UlaganVillage, 2012)
“Altaidyn Cholmoni” Altai Republic Newspaper, № 127, 10th July 2012.
Translated from Altai into Russian by A. Tokhtonova
I read the short article in Altaidin Cholmoni, 31st May, A Snow Leopard Sighting about two young men from the Turochak District who had sighted a snow leopard near an obogo, not far from Lake Teletskoe. At first I was surprised to read that a snow leopard could inhabit such dense and low lying taiga. People in the CholushmanValley call an obogo ‘Oboo’. At the obogo – a place on the banks of Lake Teletskoe, the Tubalars had piled their haystacks and here the snow leopard was seen. On the other hand, perhaps it shouldn’t seem so surprising because a snow leopard can find food in thickets in low-lying areas and hunt small animals and wild boar. It was during a trip to the farming stations on the Saratansky Kolkhoz that I realised snow leopards feed on animals aside from mountain goat and wild mountain sheep. I remember one occasion when Dimash Dyustyukov, a war veteran and yak milker from Verkhniy Eldugem (Ustigi-Eldugem) showed me the remains of a yak that had been attacked by a snow leopard.
In the 1970’s I was hunting for mountain goat in the Bashkush area with my friend Petr Tushninov. In a place called Ak-Oze we came across the remains of a mountain goat that had been attacked by a snow leopard. The body was still warm so we assumed that the snow leopard had abandoned it immediately on picking up our smell. We had missed the animal itself lingered to study its tracks. The tracks of a snow leopard can be clearly distinguished from those of a fox or wolf.
The ChelchiRiver joins the Cholushman from the right. Karas Yadomykov herded sheep and goat with his mother at the herding station at Chelchi and they often lost cattle to snow leopard. Karas was an excellent hunter. There were few who could keep up with him over the rocks. On foot he had no equal. He knew all the rules of hunting, not to be greedy, and of course, he also knew that hunting snow leopard was totally forbidden. However, circumstances forced his hand and he shot a snow leopard to frighten it away from the herd. Coincidence or not who can say, but soon after, his wife gave birth to a son with six fingers. Karas called his son Irbisek (little snow leopard – translator JD).
I have never seen a snow leopard in the wild myself but I did see one in a zoo once. During the Soviet period when I was studying at the HigherPartySchool in Novosibirsk I visited the zoo. I think there were a pair, a male and a female. I felt sorry for them. They looked worn out. How can you compare the wild habitats of Altai with life in a zoo? In the wild they drank water from the springs, rolled on the pure white glaciers, roamed the slopes and scree and fed on choice animals.
In 1965 when I was still teaching in the school in Cholushman I travelled to Khakassia with Gavril Grigorevich Sartakov and his father-war veteran Grigory Anotnovich to see the Northern Deer with the hope of hunting it, if things worked out.
First though, let me tell you about our guide Grigory Antonovich. Grigory lost a leg in the war. He threw the artificial leg away and used two crutches. You could see how strong and quick he must have been in his youth. Leaning on the crutch, and placing his one foot into the stirrup, he nimbly mounted his ginger horse. You wouldn’t have believed it unless you’d seen it with your own eyes. There were times when he’d had a bit to drink and would compete with the younger men at the races. We were afraid the horse would stumble and he’d come flying out of the saddle, but he never fell. The local people nicknamed him ‘Lame’ and he lived with it to the end of his days.
In Balykcha there lived another war veteran by the name of Afanasy Stepanovich Chokov. He lost his left leg whereas Lame had lost his right leg. Both men had the same size feet so they bought one pair of shoes between them. Lame even fished sitting in the saddle and the ginger horse would stand quite still up to its ears in water.
In 1945 the war came to an end. There were a lot of squirrels in the Ulagan District that year. Lame recounted how 10-15 squirrels sat in a single, young larch tree. Having arrived in Ulagan from Keo he hunted squirrel together with his son Aily in Turalu, Tonolgen and Kaltar-Olon. Lame fixed a hook of some kind to the end of his crutch and carefully picked up the squirrels from where they lay on the ground. For a long time he worked as shopkeeper in KeoVillage. He travelled to Ulagan to buy goods and loaded them up himself.
So, we set off into the region of Khakassia together with this unusual man to hunt for white deer and visited many interesting places along the way. Having arrived in Ak-Korum from BalikchaVillage we stayed the night at the home of his son-in-law and war veteran nicknamed ‘Parkhomenko’. Travelling up into the Kara-Cyy taiga we passed many lakes, rivers and boggy areas. Both Gavrilov and I were on horses that had only recently been broken. When they stumbled or sunk down into the bog we led them by rope, but the ginger horse was fine and steadily picked its way through bog and ford.
You may wonder why Gavrilov and I were on such young horses. In the 1960’s very few people had their own horse in Cholushman. When the school horse became too old to work, the headmaster, Vasily Vasilievich Arbanakov spoke to the Kolkhoz and asked them to give him a horse, to which Kolkhoz President, Semen Danilovich Kuyukov replied: “If the school boys break in four horses for us, then we will exchange a young horse for your old one”. There was no getting round it, so, Gavrilov Andadikov, Aleksei Ivanovich, Andrei Kuz’mich Natov, school caretaker and myself broke in the horses. Gavrilov mounted the black mare and they gave me the six-year-old stallion ‘Konyr’. That’s how we ended up setting off hunting on such inexperienced horses.
It turned out that Lame had been in this deer habitat previously in 1933. He took us along unmarked paths guided by some inner compass keeping him to the right track. It is remarkable that 32 years later he could remember the way, not diverging from the path by a single metre. We crossed huge rivers, the Ulushty, Kairu, and Kygy. We crossed the border into Khakassia and travelled into the upper reaches of the Small and GreatAbakanRivers.
Lame showed us the place called ‘Dereen At’ of which it is said that a horse belonging to the Tuvinians died, covered in sweat, brought down by the arrow of Dyarynak shot across Lake Teletskoe.
We saw many bears, elk, roe deer and wild boar along the way but Lame wouldn’t let us hunt them as our intention had been to come for deer.
Eventually, on the evening of the third day in the saddle we arrived at a place called Ara situated at the foot of Kyzyl-TuuMountain in the Abakan region. “Do you see the deer lads?”, Lame asked suddenly. We replied: “Can’t see anything!” We couldn’t see what Lame was pointing to in the snow. We thought it was bushes but it turned out to be deer horns. The deer had huddled together so tightly that they looked like bushes in the snow.
Early in the morning of the following day we spotted mountain goat on the rocks of Kyzyl-TuuMountain. We had a good shot. It was July but we could see that they were still shedding their winter coats and so were quite shaggy. “Well, let’s look at some wild meat, honoured uncle” Lame suggested. Being spoken to with such regard I agreed and with enthusiasm began crawling slowly towards where the goats were standing. I had decided to crawl as far as the stones grown over with grass and to shoot from there. Yet when I reached the stones and lifted my head the goat were gone.
I don’t know from which generation but the Sartakovs descended from the daughter of Kachaaka. Of the older men, Maksym, Kugee and Kurgery returned from the front. From their youth they had called me uncle. From their childhood I was seen as the adult and I taught them to hunt wild mountain goat. I would go hunting with friends and sometimes alone.
I got to my knees and then stood up tall and looked again. The goats were indeed, nowhere to be seen. I was surprised at how quickly the goat had picked up trace of my smell for the wind was blowing towards me. I thought perhaps the earth had taken offense at me and frightened the goats away or perhaps I had slipped up in some way. I silently gave thanks to the mountain passes and asked for blessing and hardly noticed the others as I returned to camp. Gavrilov walked towards me and asked: “Did you see the animal?” Surprised, I asked which animal he meant. “The snow leopard”, he replied.
Gavrilov had been watching the entire scene. “As soon as you got near the mountain goat a snow leopard came down from the mountain. It came within 10 metres of you, raised its head and then turned around. As it turned it knocked some small stones out from under its paw which fell and frightened the goats and they ran. Gavril added humorously: “The snow leopard watched it happen as if he was thinking to himself: Well! I’ve never seen anything as ridiculous as this and I don’t suppose my parents did either!”
That’s how I escaped the fate of being torn apart by a snow leopard. A beast as pure and sharp as the snow leopard would surely be far too put off by the smell of smoke and sweat to be interested in us!
A. Kachakov, UlaganVillage, 2012.