Follow The Cats
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.
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.
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.
Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera
The only other snow leopard we have known during dispersal was Zaraa, who left her mother Tenger in February of last year. A few weeks after M9 went off on his own, field researcher Orjan located his first big kill, a 5 year old female ibex. He ate for six days, and since that time has been seen on two additional kill sites. The young snow leopard is doing great! (more…)
Orjan Johansson is our snow leopard collaring expert currently living at the research base camp in the South Gobi of Mongolia. Life is harsh in mountain ranges where snow leopards are found, and Orjan shares his experience:
As we were eating breakfast a couple of days ago it struck me that there are no ‘littles’ here. There is never “a little wind” or “a little hot”. Two days before this realization, it was an exceptionally hot day with a blazing sun. I was wearing a light shirt and still sweated heavily. But the day after, it was so cold that I had to dig out the long-johns and woolen cap again. This morning the wind blew so hard that the ger itself moved, and motor-biking would involve a substantial risk if caught in a crosswind.
For the past 50 days, I have had company more or less 24/7. The visitors have been great, but it is a little tiring to constantly have people that are dependent on me in camp. But the alternative is to be alone here, which I have been for the last three days after the visitors departed. Alone in the Gobi means living without another human being in sight. So I’m not ‘a little alone’. I’m totally alone.
Since my brother installed the microprocessors, our trap surveillance system has worked perfect! That is, it worked perfect until a few hours after my assistant and Charu left camp, then it broke down… With excellent help from my brother I have isolated the problem, a small amplifier broke. It is a common part found in most stores that sell electronic supplies and it costs a couple of dollars. Unfortunately, there are simply no electronic stores here. So I must again get up every third hour and climb the mountain to manually listen to the trap transmitters. I would love to be just ‘a little tired’ and ‘a little luckier’.
An adorable sleeping snow leopard cuddles up for the night! Situated right in front of our research camera, an adult cat explores the area and finally snuggles up against the chilly nighttime air.
We have created a stop-motion film from the pictures, creating the longest video the Snow Leopard Trust has ever published! Check out this remarkable video on our YouTube page!