A Futile Season? Not Necessarily!
Researcher Örjan Johansson has returned from another season at Base Camp. They were not able to collar any snow leopards, but he and his colleagues still got a lot done!
I’ve just returned after six busy weeks in the South Gobi, where Gustaf Samelius, Kullu Suryawanshi, Per and David Ahlqvist and myself have been working at our base camp with our Mongolian colleague Sumbee Tomorsukh. Our goal had been to capture a couple of cats and equip them with GPS collars for our Long-Term Ecological Study. Things didn’t go as planned I’m afraid. The only cat that we managed to catch was Devekh, a male we had collared back in May so there was no need to re-collar him. The area where we were working is on the very edge of Devekh’s home range, so I had hoped that we wouldn’t catch him – but that didn’t work out. While he walked into our snare, the other cats in the area – the ones we had been after – managed to avoid them! On four occasions we had snow leopards stepping in the snares but missing the trigger by an inch or two.
We felt like it was more bad luck than one deserves, but I guess that is how it goes. Perhaps next time we will catch a dozen cats instead.
While we were certainly frustrated by our futile attempts to catch a cat, we did also engage in some more productive – and rewarding – endeavors. Led by Sumbee, we’ve started a pilot study for an upcoming project where we will be working with local communities to build predator-proof corrals. We’ve interviewed herders on livestock losses and measured existing corrals, finding out what needs to be done. The information on livestock losses will help us compare the pre and post-intervention damages and examine the effectiveness of the intervention. Sumbee will continue this work through the winter, and hopefully we can begin building and upgrading corrals next spring.
We continued with the visits to so-called cluster sites, where the collared cats have stayed for a longer period of time. Often, these are sites where the cat has made a kill. With the data we collected these past weeks, we are now ready to write a scientific paper about snow leopard prey choice and how many prey animals each cat kills per month – and what differences there are between males, single females and females with cubs. This autumn, we looked at prey sites from Devekh, Ariun and Ariunbeleg. It was quite interesting to see how much prey Ariunbeleg has to catch in order to sustain her two big cubs – each of them probably eats more than an adult cat since they are quite big and growing. She has to make a kill at least twice as often as the males! The last time she had cubs before this, she raised three or four, which is an astonishing accomplishment!
A Herder’s Apprentice
Usually, I work with herders from a scientists’ perspective. There was one day, however, where I got to practice my own goat herding skills! One of our neighbors was moving his livestock to a winter camp site. He asked if I could help to keep the goats away from the snares as they passed through the valley where we were trying to catch cats. Essentially, I had to circle the herd on my bike at a distance great enough not to scare the goats, then park by the snare and wait for the last of the 250 goats to pass – and then make it to the next snare before the first goats reached it! For a beginner, I think I did a pretty good job, as we didn’t catch a single goat.
Örjan Johansson is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). He is the field scientist in our Long Term Ecological Study about snow leopards in South Gobi, Mongolia. Örjan’s groundbreaking research is generously supported by Nordens Ark Zoo in Bohuslän, Sweden, and by Kolmården Zoo, in Norrköping, Sweden.
This study is a joint project of the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in cooperation with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism, and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.