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Get to know the 19 wild snow leopards we’ve been able to track in our long-term study in Mongolia!

Snow Leopard Trust Researchers Encounter Wild Snow Leopard Cub

Agnes' cub inside the den

Agnes’ cub inside the den

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.”

Agnes, photographed earlier this spring

Snow leopard mom Agnes

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.

Download the full-size photo of Agnes’ cub here.

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?

Ariun

Ariun, captured by a research camera in 2012

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.

Press Contact:
Jennifer Snell Rullman, Assistant Director of Conservation Snow Leopard Trust; jennifer@snowleopard.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.
www.snowleopard.org

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.

Acknowledgements:
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:

Nysether Family Foundation
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
Whitley Fund for Nature
Cat Life Foundation
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Helsinki Zoo
South Lakes Wild Animal Park

Special thanks to Örjan Johansson and Walter Pereyra for providing cat names for Agnes and Ariun.

 

The Future of our Long-Term Study in Mongolia

Fast Facts:

Wild Cubs Explained In-Depth

On June 21st, 2012, our field team made a remarkable visit to the den sites of Anu and Lasya. These two females are part of our long-term ecological study and wear GPS tracking collars that help us identify their movements. With this data, we can learn critical information about snow leopard range, habitat and prey needs. This allows us to better understand snow leopards and the threats they face, and make the most of our resources to protect these endangered cats.

In May, Anu and Lasya began to restrict their daily movements to smaller and smaller areas, which the team interpreted as a signal that both were preparing to give birth. Traveling through steep and rocky mountain outcroppings, the team followed VHF signals transmitted by the collars and finally located the dens.

Only six kilometers apart, both dens were high up in steep canyons. The first den was in a big cave with a man-made rock wall blocking most of the entrance. ‘As we stood outside the den we could hear the cub and smell the cats but not see anything inside the den,’ said PhD student Orjan Johansson.

Orjan and his colleagues, Sumbee Tomorsukh of Mongolia, Mattia Colombo of Italy, and Dr. Carol Esson of Australia (a licensed veterinarian), extended a camera over the wall and were able to film Anu lying tucked against the wall staring at the entrance with a paw over her tiny cub. ‘This is incredible,’ says Brad Rutherford, our Executive Director. ‘Snow leopards are so rare and elusive that people often talk about them as ‘ghosts’ of the mountains.

This is the first documented visit of a den site with cubs and thanks to this video we can share it with the world.

At the second den (Lasya’s), the team found two male cubs in a narrow crack in a cliff wall. Confirming that their mother was out on a kill, the scientists were able to enter, photograph the cubs and take hair samples that will allow them to establish the cubs’ genetic identification and confirm sex. They also took weights and measurements and implanted PIT tags (tiny tracking microchips similar to those used by pet owners). Both cubs had full stomachs and appeared to be in excellent health. The whole event took less than 30 minutes.

The team handled the cubs with care and took their measurements as quickly as possible. “This was an unprecedented opportunity,’ says Rutherford, ‘We wanted to be as careful as possible and only take the most pressing data.’ The team listened with VHF from a distance to make sure that the females had returned to the dens. Their constant monitoring has confirmed that both females are still with their cubs. The research teams will not be visiting the cubs or the den sites again in order to limit disturbance to the den areas and the cubs themselves.

These findings are incredibly important for snow leopard conservation. Due to the snow leopard’s elusive nature, very little is known about snow leopards in the wild. Birth rates, sex ratios, cub sizes, litter sizes and cub survival rates have never been documented but are critical to understanding—and planning for—the survival of the species. Follow-up assessment of cub survival will enable the Snow Leopard Trust to clarify the potential for snow leopard populations to grow.

This long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi is a joint project with Snow Leopard Conservation Fund and Panthera, and is in cooperation with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.

A downloadable version of the press release can be found here.

What to Expect When Snow Leopards Are Expecting

During the last week of May, our field researchers began to observe some interesting behavior in two of the female snow leopards in our long-term ecological study. Anu and Lasya had started to restrict their movements significantly, and we began to suspect that the two were pregnant and looking for den sites.

We have been monitoring the two cats since we first noticed this pattern, and were able to identify the sites they had chosen to give birth. On June 21st, snow leopard expert Orjan, field researcher Sumbe and their team set out to investigate the sites in hopes of catching a glimpse of wild cubs.

We have heard back from the field, and are thrilled to report that Anu has had one cub and Lasya has had two cubs! They both picked excellent den sites only a few kilometers away from each other–the perfect snow leopard nursery. Both sites are close to water and herds of wild prey, and all three cubs looked healthy and well taken care of.

To get a more detailed description of this event, please read our public press release.

Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera