Press Release – Seattle, WA, July 11, 2013
An international research team including members of the Snow Leopard Trust encounters a 2-week-old wild snow leopard cub in its den; a rare glimpse of the first days in the life of these endangered, elusive cats.
Finding a wild snow leopard cub in its den is rare and exciting in its own right – the first ever such encounter took place only last year. This most recent discovery could be particularly significant though, as the international team of scientists that found this little cub believes they know not only its mother, a cat called Agnes, but possibly its father as well; a male named Ariun. Before locating the den site, the team had been tracking the cub’s mother – and its likely father – with GPS collars for several months as part of the Snow Leopard Trust’s pioneering long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert.
“Beyond conception, very little is known about the role of snow leopard fathers in the wild,” says Gustaf Samelius, a member of the team that encountered the cub. “Being able to monitor both parents of a newborn cub as it grows could yield exciting new insights, says Samelius, who is the Snow Leopard Trust’s Assistant Director of Science and a researcher with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), “So we’re eagerly awaiting the results of genetic analysis to see if Ariun is indeed the cub’s father.”
Analyzing their GPS locations, Örjan Johansson, a PhD student with the Snow Leopard Trust and SLU, had observed the two cats, Agnes and Ariun, spending several days in very close proximity earlier this spring. Snow leopards are usually solitary cats, so this type of behavior often indicates that two cats are mating. Several weeks later – as if on schedule – Agnes started to restrict her movements in a way that suggested she was preparing to give birth. “When we were fairly certain that she had given birth, we followed the VHF signals transmitted by her collar in order to find her den,” says Gustaf Samelius.
On June 21, Gustaf Samelius and his colleagues – Sumbe Tomorsukh of Mongolia and Australians Jeremy Krockenberger and Carol Esson – located the exact spot where Agnes had set up her den. Once they were certain she was a safe distance away, the scientists were able to briefly enter the den, examine and photograph her 2 week-old cub. They took hair samples that will allow them to establish the cubs’ genetic identification and confirm sex. They also took weights and measurements, and implanted a tiny microchip – called a PIT tag – for identification, similar to those used by pet owners.
”We still know very little about how snow leopards reproduce in the wild. It has taken years of sustained scientific effort for us to able to begin documenting birth rates, sex ratios, cub sizes, litter sizes or cub survival rates – all of which are critical to our work to save these endangered cats. Getting the rare opportunity to observe a cub in its den is huge for us”, says Charudutt Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation Director. “The team handled the cub very carefully and took their measurements as quickly as possible.”
A Visit From Dad?
Back in the study base camp, the team looked at GPS data from presumed father Ariun’s collar and compared it to the exact den location. “As we compared the data, we realized that Ariun had been within a few feet of the den a week after the cub’s birth, while Agnes, the cub’s mother, was almost a mile away”,Gustaf Sameliussays. “We can’t tell if he was actually inside the den or what he did there, but it’s a fascinating behavior to observe – especially if Ariun really does turn out to be the father”.
Snow Leopards – the Elusive Ghosts of the Mountain
There are as few as 3,500-7,000 snow leopards left in the wild – and due to their elusive nature, encounters are so rare that the cats are often referred to as “ghosts of the mountain”. Accordingly, our understanding of the cats’ ecology and behavior remains limited. However, an international team of scientists has been conducting a pioneering long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert since 2008, tracking the cats with GPS collars and research cameras and expanding our knowledge about this endangered species by leaps and bounds.
Jennifer Snell Rullman, Assistant Director of Conservation Snow Leopard Trust; firstname.lastname@example.org, 206-632-2421
Snow Leopard Trust:
The Snow Leopard Trust, based in Seattle, WA, is a world leader in conservation of the endangered snow leopard.
Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation:
Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation is the Snow Leopard Trust’s partner organization based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; partnering together on the conservation of the endangered snow leopard since 1998.
The efforts of Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Mongolia are carried out in partnership with the Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Green Development; the Mongolia Academy of Sciences: Nordens Ark, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
Our Long-Term Ecological Study (LTES) of snow leopards in Mongolia began as a collaboration between the Snow Leopard Trust, Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, and Panthera in 2008. As of January 1, 2013, Panthera no longer actively participates in LTES. We continue to work cooperatively with Panthera on analyzing data collected through 2012, including information from Agnes and Ariun’s collars.
The 2013 collaring of snow leopards in our long-term study in Mongolia is generously supported by the following major donors:
Special thanks to Örjan Johansson and Walter Pereyra for providing cat names for Agnes and Ariun.
New study: more wild prey for snow leopards may mean more livestock losses, not less!
We’ve all had these evenings, after a long day at work, where we’d just open the fridge and eat whatever we found in there. On a good day, that may have been a pizza. On a bad one, however, all we might find were some leftovers in a somewhat questionable state. But hey, so what, we’d just eat them, for lack of alternatives.
For years, conservationists have assumed that this was pretty much what snow leopards did, too: As wild prey species were disappearing from their habitat, our assumption was that the cats would turn to what was left instead: livestock. Bringing back more wild prey would then equal less livestock depredation and thus fewer conflicts between snow leopards and herders, which looked like a classic win-win situation.
Four years ago, we’ve set up camp in Mongolia’s South Gobi to start the world’s first comprehensive, long-term study of snow leopard’s ecology, habitat and behavior. As we look ahead to the next chapter in this groundbreaking research endeavor, we also want to share 7 amazing facts from the past 4 years with you.
1. Thanks to your support, we’ve collared and tracked a total of 19 snow leopards in the South Gobi in the last 4 years.
2. Our GPS collars recorded over 18,000 individual snow leopard locations, the most detailed snow leopard distribution data ever assembled.
3. From this data, our scientists have calculated that the most avid wanderer among “our” cats, Ariun, has a monthly home range of over 463 km2, which is more than 5 times the size of Manhattan…
4. Our study area sometimes resembles a nursery: In 2012: we’ve been able to confirm the existence of six new snow leopard cubs through a preliminary review of research camera data and from sightings!
5. We’ve documented weight, size and sex of three newborn cubs, another “first” in snow leopard science!
6. Thanks to the data from our study, local communities have managed to secure greater environmental protection for a 6,500 sq km region in the Tost mountains, 2/3 the size of Yellowstone National Park.
7. More than a dozen grad students from Mongolia and many other countries have advanced their academic careers while taking part in the long-term study.
In 2013, Snow Leopard Trust researchers in Pakistan hope to complete camera trap studies and conflict surveys that will help them paint the most complete picture of snow leopard distribution and conservation status across the country to date.
The Snow Leopard Trust’s local partner organization in Pakistan is finalizing the country’s first comprehensive report on snow leopard distribution and status
Community conservation programs are changing local people’s perspectives of snow leopards
Snow leopard status report will help expand and focus these successful conservation efforts to key snow leopard habitats
Using a combination of research cameras (deployed in Khunjerab National Park, one of Pakistan’s prime snow leopard habitats) and surveys exploring conflicts between humans and cats across the country’s entire snow leopard range, the Snow Leopard Foundation, our local partner organization, has been collecting data about the distribution, conservation status and threat level of snow leopards in Pakistan for several years. They have been sharing the results of their work with local authorities and partners, building valuable partnerships: “Thanks to the efforts of the Snow Leopard Foundation, our understanding of snow leopards has deepened, and our staff is now equipped with the basics of carnivore assessment and conservation measures”, says Aftab Mehmood, the Divisional Forest Officer at the Wildlife Department of Gilgit-Baltistan Province.
In 2013, the Snow Leopard Foundation’s team, led by Dr. Muhammad Ali Nawaz, is hoping to finalize these distribution studies and to assemble the country’s first comprehensive snow leopard status report. “Knowing where snow leopards live, how many there are and what conflicts exist between them and local communities will allow us to both expand our successful conservation programs and to focus them even more on the areas where they will have the biggest impact”, explains Ali Nawaz. “In addition, this data will also help us and our government and NGO partners in defining priorities when it comes to establishing protected areas.”
Local Communities’ Perceptions of Snow Leopards are Changing
The Snow Leopard Foundation’s community conservation programs, including a Livestock Insurance Scheme, corral improvements and vaccination campaigns are aimed at reducing conflicts between local communities and snow leopards, one of the major threats the cats face in Pakistan. They have yielded very encouraging results. Government officials, partners and, perhaps most importantly, representatives of local communities, have praised the efforts: “A few years ago, we treated snow leopards and other predators as beasts; and killing them used to be taken as a sign of prestige in the community. Now, thanks to the interventions of the Snow Leopard Foundation in the valley, perceptions have changed. We’ve learned – again – to coexist with these animals”, says Phurdom Khan, a representative of the Shandoor Local Support Organization, a community network in Gilgit-Baltistan.
This year, Ali Nawaz and the Snow Leopard Foundation plan to further expand these successful programs to remote areas of the Karakoram, a region they have identified as another key snow leopard habitat.