Belling the Cat: Why Collars are Crucial
Find out why tracking snow leopards with GPS collars is an indispensable part of our efforts to save them – and how we try to minimize the impact the collaring has on the cats.
In order to protect snow leopards, we have to understand their needs & behaviors
We’ve learned much of what we know about snow leopards from GPS collar location data
Snow Leopard Trust researchers have developed best practices for safely immobilizing and collaring cats
Sometimes, people suggest that in order to protect wildlife, humans should just leave animals alone. Unfortunately, in today’s globalized world, just keeping our distance won’t be enough to ensure the survival of endangered species like the snow leopard.
Of course, in ancient times, their unspoiled range used to provide plenty of everything the cats needed. But whether we like it or not, those days are over. Today, humans are impacting global and local ecosystems in various ways – on scales large and small: Our energy consumption has effects on the global climate – and local precipitation patterns and temperatures in snow leopard range countries. Our tastes in fashion here in the West influence what kind of livestock are reared by herders in Central Asia – and how much wild prey populations of the snow leopard get depleted as a result. Our technological innovations help make minerals such as gold so indispensable that more and more pristine mountain ranges of Central Asia are being dug up to meet the demand.
We can’t help but affect wildlife, even if we try to keep our distance. What we can do, however, is to find ways for species like the snow leopard to coexist with humans. But in order to do so, we first have to understand what their most important needs are.
Some insights can be gained through observation. Others can be deduced. But if the species you’re trying to understand – and ultimately protect – is as elusive and rare as the snow leopard, visual observation is nearly impossible, and there is little previous information to deduce from.
We’ve learned much of what we know about snow leopards from GPS collars
Along with other technological innovations, the technology to study rare and elusive species has also seen rapid advances. Our best chance to get the information we need to devise effective conservation strategies for snow leopards is through equipping wild cats with GPS collars and tracking their movements.
In fact, we’ve learned much of what we know about snow leopards today – from their spatial needs to their major food sources – from the location data scientists collected from such collars over the last decade.
For instance, it was only after one of our radio-collared young male snow leopards left his mother’s home range and moved some 60 km across inhospitable Gobi steppes to the next mountain chain and established his home range there, that we realized the importance of protecting the intervening steppe habitats between mountain ranges. Often, these relatively flat areas are under particular pressure from the development of new roads and mining operations. Without radio collaring, we would have never realized the important role the play in the dispersal of snow leopards.
If you’ve followed some of the adventures of our field researcher and collaring expert Örjan Johansson on this blog, you know that collaring snow leopards is as difficult as it is important – for several reasons. There’s the tricky terrain; temperatures tend to be freezing, and wild snow leopards don’t exactly seek human company – so they have to be immobilized in order for us to fit a collar on them.
It’s understandable that certain readers may find this process rather upsetting. However, as described, we consider it a crucial part of our conservation effort. Our highly professional team of scientists is doing all they can to minimize the impact on the cats and keep them safe. Örjan, who has the training of a researcher, the skills and instincts of a hunter and naturalist, and the heart of a conservationist, leads all our capture operations – and it is his priority that not a single snow leopard be hurt on his watch
Since 2009, our team has collared a total of 19 cats, which has allowed us to develop a method for capture and immobilization that can be considered best practice in the field. Örjan and his colleagues, global leaders in snow leopard research, have now published[i] the results of their experiences and insights for safe immobilization of wild snow leopards in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, a peer-reviewed scientific publication. You can read the research paper here.
Step-by-Step Guide to Collaring a Wild Snow Leopard
The first step to collaring a cat is setting a snare to capture it. Used with skill, these snares are safe for the cats, and once a snare is tripped, an alarm sounds that instantly alerts our researchers to investigate the site. Once captured, the cat has to be immobilized so that a GPS collar can be fitted on. Since every species has a unique physiology, finding the right mix of drugs to achieve safe immobilization with minimal side effects is challenging.
Building on existing studies on the immobilization of bears and lions with a combination of sedatives and tranquilizers, and seeking the advice of experienced zoo veterinarians, our team has developed a drug protocol specifically designed for the immobilization of snow leopards. Cats that have been immobilized with this method have shown good physiological responses and minimal side effects.
Since snow leopards are most active at dusk and dawn, most captures happen when it’s very cold. The cats therefore have to be kept warm throughout the time of their immobilization. Our team does this with isolating blankets or sleeping bags, warm water bottles, and constantly monitoring body temperature.
When temperatures and terrain are considered safe, the team administers an antidote to help the cat recover as soon as they have fitted the collar and gathered all samples, keeping the immobilization time as short as possible. However, if cold temperatures pose a threat to an anesthetized snow leopard during its recovery, the team may move it to a safer terrain and allow more time for the anesthetic to wear off before waking the cat.
Capture and immobilization of any animal, particularly of an endangered species, is a highly skilled job and cannot be learnt by simply reading a bunch of papers or following field guides. Nevertheless, as scientists make progress, it is important to share the knowledge. We are currently assisting and sharing our experiences with WWF, helping them with their plans to conduct a radio-collaring study on snow leopards in Nepal. The method Örjan Johansson and his team have developed works: Although some level of capture related mortality is generally recorded in various studies worldwide, we haven’t lost a single cat due to capture operations; no cat we’ve collared has died even 3 months after the capture (sadly, one collared cat was killed by a herder a few months later), and there have been no significant complications or injuries to any of the cats in the process.
As of today, we are tracking 5 collared cats in our Long-Term Ecological Study in Mongolia. The data we’ve gathered from their collars has helped us understand more about snow leopards and their behaviors and needs, from dietary habits to range sizes. And it has helped local communities to convince the government to establish a Local Protected Area in our study region in the Tost Mountains, including the intervening steppe habitats between Tost and the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park where our radio-collared cat dispersed and established his home range.
[i] Örjan Johansson, Jonas Malmsten, Charudutt Mishra, Purevjav Lkhagvajav, and Tom McCarthy, 2013: Reversible immobilization of free-ranging snow leopards (panthera uncia) with a combination of Medetomidine and Tiletamine. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 49(2), 2013, pp. 338–346.
This paper was the result of a collaborative effort between the Snow Leopard Trust and our Mongolia Partner the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Panthera, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and the Swedish National Veterinary Institute.