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Anu’s Tale – From Little Cub to Proud Mother of Triplets

Using remote-sensor research cameras and GPS tracking collars, Snow Leopard Trust researchers have been able to follow and observe a young female snow leopard named Anu over the course of four years as she grew up, dispersed from her mother and later had cubs herself twice in her mountain habitat in Mongolia’s South Gobi. The latest photos show Anu followed by three small cubs. Her tale is a powerful sign of hope for the endangered cat species.

In the fall of 2014, our team retrieved one of our research cameras, stationed near a watering hole frequently used by the area’s animals. Days later, we got an excited email from the field: “Amazing pics. Mother with 3 cubs!

Three tiny snow leopard cubs, captured by a research camera in Mongolia

Three tiny snow leopard cubs, captured by a research camera in Mongolia

It took half a year and some painstaking detective work until we realized we knew the mom of these three cuties. It was Anu!

In the secretive world of the elusive snow leopard, Anu is an exception. While other cats stay hidden forever, Anu has become something a public ambassador for her species. Born in Mongolia’s Tost mountains on the edge of the Gobi desert in 2009, Anu was first thrust into the spotlight a year later.

Part of A Groundbreaking Study

Around the time Anu was born, researchers from the Snow Leopard Trust had set up camp just a few miles from her den site for what was to become the world’s first long-term study of this endangered cat’s ecology and behavior. Using technology such as motion-sensor cameras and GPS tracking collars, the scientists sought to lift the veil on some of the snow leopard’s secrets: how much space do these cats need? How much prey do they consume? How do they interact? Where do they migrate to, and which patterns do they follow?

The answers to some of these questions have helped shape effective conservation measures over the last years. The study showed that more than a dozen cats lived in this area – information that has been critical in partially protecting Tost from the threat of mining until now. Data from the study proved that snow leopards migrate between various mountain chains, crossing steppe and desert if necessary – promoting efforts to protect these important corridors along with the mountains they link.

In 2010, when Anu was around one year old, she was photographed for the first time by one of the Snow Leopard Trust’s research cameras, hiding behind her mother, a cat the scientists had named Inquisitive for her curious nature.

Young Anu, partially hidden behind her mother

Young Anu, partially hidden behind her mother, in 2010

At the time, it was estimated that Anu would soon disperse from her mom and set out on her own to find a suitable home range, and indeed, in the spring of 2011, when she made her next appearance in front of a camera, Anu was traveling alone and had developed into a fully grown young cat.

When we saw Anu again in 2011, she had dispersed form her mother and was traveling alone.

When we saw Anu again in 2011, she had dispersed form her mother and was traveling alone.

Historic Mom

A couple of weeks later, our research team achieved a breakthrough: an alarm went off at basecamp, indicating that a snow leopard had been caught by a hidden snare, giving the scientists the opportunity to equip the cat with a GPS tracking collar. The cat in the snare was Anu.

The researchers had set out to collar a young female, hoping she’d have cubs while they were tracking her. Anu didn’t appear to be pregnant though – but with the collars lasting for about 18 months, they were hopeful for 2012.

As her collar steadily sent location data to a satellite, our team tracked Anu’s movements for about a year. In the spring of 2012, they noticed a change in her ranging patterns. She restrained her movements more and more, using only a very small portion of her home range. Eventually, she stopped moving altogether. For the Trust researchers, this was exactly the sign they had been hoping for. They believed Anu was about to give birth.

They tracked her signals to a remote cave, not far from the study’s base camp. There, hidden behind a wall of rocks that must have been built years earlier by local herders, they heard faint sounds. They attached a camera to stick – a bit of a makeshift set-up, as this was before the era of the ubiquitous self-stick – and carefully lifted it over the wall to film the inside of the cave.

It may only be a few seconds of shaky images, but the footage the team took that day was historical: the first ever video of a wild snow leopard cub in its den, with its mother, Anu.

Watch the footage of Anu and her cub. Another female, Lasya, was found with two cubs around the same time.

A few days later, Anu ventured out of the den to hunt for food. The team used this opportunity to examine her cub, carefully inspecting, weighing and photographing the little kitten. They quickly left the den site and waited at a safe distance for Anu to come home.

After a few hours, Anu returned with dinner and settled back into the den with her offspring.

The photos and videos had a major impact in the scientific community and were celebrated by snow leopard lovers around the world. Anu, however, didn’t seem to be impressed by her sudden fame. Instead, she began venturing out of the den with her cub, teaching the little one to hunt and survive in the rugged mountains of their home.

Anu’s GPS collar dropped off as scheduled soon after, and the team lost sight of her and her cub for a while – our research cameras kept track of them though. 

In the fall of 2012, they appeared in a photo – the cub still relatively small. Our team was anxious to see how the two cats would fare through the hard Mongolian winter.

A few months later, in early 2013, the got their answer, as Anu and her cub again passed in front of a camera. By then, the tiny ball of fur our team had found in its den had grown into a handsome young adult.

Anu and her tiny cub, photographed in 2012

Anu and her tiny cub, photographed in 2012

After this sighting, we lost track of mother and cub for a couple of months. In this time, the cub must have dispersed to find its own home range.

Detective Work Leads to Discovery

When a camera stationed near a watering hole in 2014 took pictures of a female snow leopard with three cubs, we were elated. Footage of wild cubs is still exceedingly rare, and is always a powerful sign of hope.

A dedicated volunteer, Simone Schreiber, put together a short video of the playful cubs, and thousands of supporters enjoyed seeing them. Behind the scenes, however, we were trying to find out how this cat was.

Check out video footage of Anu and her three cubs, taken in 2014

In the photos from the watering hole, it’s hard to make out much of the mother’s fur pattern, which is how individual cats can be identified. So, as a direct ID was impossible, our researchers looked for other photos of the quartet, where they may be more easily identified.

Finally, Dr. Koustubh Sharma, the Trust’s Senior Regional Ecologist, found the key pic: a crystal-clear image of the mother, trailing her three cubs, taken near the same watering hole, but by a different camera. He was able to confirm that it was the same cat as in the other photos. More importantly, he now had a good picture of her spots to compare with our database of snow leopard photos.

Her three cubs just ahead, Anu walks past another research camera

Her three cubs just ahead, Anu walks past another research camera

What sounds like a quick job for a computer is actually a bit more complicated than that. Slight differences in posture, angle or lighting can distort fur patterns significantly. Sometimes, what looks like two different cats may indeed be one and the same animal, while similarities in patterns between two cats can lead to false IDs.

“It took some time, and I hit quite a few dead ends, but I was finally able to confirm that the mother with three cubs is indeed Anu”, Koustubh says. 

“Seeing Anu again, with a new litter of cubs, gives me hope. It shows that this sliver of snow leopard habitat we’re working to protect in Mongolia is a suitable home for this endangered cat, and could support a healthy population.”

You can help protect Anu and her cubs and their habitat in Mongolia’s South Gobi by making a donation today!

 

When can we expect to see Anu and her small family again? “If we’re lucky, they’ll have passed some of our cameras this spring. We’ll collect those photos soon, so stay tuned”, Koustubh says.

 

Snow Leopard Trust Scientist Nominated for Indianapolis Prize

For the second time in his distinguished career, Dr. Charudutt (Charu) Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation Director and a trustee of India’s Nature Conservation Foundation, is among the nominees for the Indianapolis Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious conservation awards. The nomination recognizes Charu Mishra’s outstanding contributions to snow leopard science, community conservation, and global cooperation towards protection of Asia’s great mountains.


Press release, 08/31, 2015 — Seattle, WA / Mysore, India

“To be nominated for this prestigious award alongside many of the world’s leading conservationists is a great honor”, Charu Mishra says. “It is above all a testament to the outstanding work done by the dozens of scientists, students and community members in snow leopard habitat that I’ve had the privilege of working with.”

Charu Mishra

Charu Mishra (right), working with students

While studying to be a wildlife biologist in his native India, Charu grew convinced that effective conservation needs to be people-centered. He began focusing his research on the interactions between wildlife and people in the Indian Himalayas. He has since published more than 70 influential research papers on wildlife and human ecology and conflict mitigation. He most recently co-authored a watershed paper about the impacts of international cashmere trade on wildlife across Asia. 

While remaining firmly rooted in the scientific community, Charu has always been committed to applying the results of his research in the very communities he was studying. For example, when he found out that many herders felt they had no choice but to retaliate against snow leopards—one of the most iconic predators for India’s high altitudes– Charu worked with them to create India’s first community-managed livestock insurance program, which has since become a widely-replicated model of incentive-based grassroots conservation.

More recently, he worked with colleagues in Kyrgyzstan to conceptualize and initiate an anti-poaching program to be implemented in all protected areas of the country in partnership with INTERPOL.

In 1996, Charu co-founded Nature Conservation Foundation, an influential NGO promoting science-based and socially-responsible wildlife conservation in India, and established the organization’s High Altitudes program.

A Key Figure in Snow Leopard Conservation

Charu Mishra joined the Snow Leopard Trust in 2001 as the India Country Director, and in 2008 took over the responsibility to lead and manage snow leopard research and conservation across India, China, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, the top five snow leopard range countries.

In 2002, he was involved in helping establish the Snow Leopard Network, a worldwide alliance of over 500 individuals and institutions dedicated to the exchange of information towards snow leopard conservation. Charu became the Network’s Executive Director in 2010.

In 2012 Dr. Mishra was invited to help facilitate an initiative of the President of Kyrgyzstan and the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative to unify conservation efforts across all 12 snow leopard range countries.

Charu Mishra with SLT Executive Director Brad Rutherford at the 2013 Global Snow Leopard Forum

Charu Mishra (center) with SLT Executive Director Brad Rutherford (left) at the 2013 Global Snow Leopard Forum

Charu was pivotal in helping draft the Bishkek Declaration for Protection of the Endangered Snow Leopard and the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP)—a strategy that has catalyzed all 12 snow leopard range countries to commit to increasing snow leopard protection across 500,000 km2 of core snow leopard habitat.

Bringing an outspoken and unwavering voice for local communities, Charu helped ensure that the Bishkek Declaration and GSLEP explicitly recognize the rights of local communities and the important role they play in wildlife conservation across snow leopard range.

A Champion of Community-Centered Conservation

Charu is recipient of the Whitley Gold Award (2005) and the Golden Ark Award (2008), and India’s T.N. Khoshoo Award for Outstanding Contributions in the field of Conservation. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the Journals Animal Conservation and Oryx, and is a member of the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group.Today, his outstanding work and commitment are further recognized by his second straight nomination for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize.

“It’s heartening to see so many community conservation practitioners among the nominees for this important award”, Charu says. “I firmly believe that the future of wildlife conservation lies in building true partnerships with the communities that live alongside the endangered species we seek to protect. The major challenge we face is to find ways to align the legitimate interests of these rural communities – to make a safe and sustainable living – with the equally legitimate interest of conservation, which is to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity. I hope the Indianapolis Prize will contribute to advancing this concept.”

 

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

Nature Conservation Foundation:

Based in Mysore, India, Nature Conservation Foundation contributes to the knowledge and conservation of India’s unique wildlife heritage – from coral reefs and tropical rainforests to the high mountains of the Himalaya – with innovative research and imaginative solutions. www.ncf-india.org

 Acknowledgements:

Dr. Mishra’s work is supported by the Whitley Fund for Nature.

Six-Year Old Future Conservationist Has Big Impact Today!

For her sixth birthday, Aurelia had one big wish: saving snow leopards! With the help of her parents, she asked everyone who’d come to her birthday party to make a donation instead of bringing gifts – raising over $150 for conservation!


Aurelia’s fascination for big cats started at the age of 3, when she fell in love with Gia, the ‘girl leopard’ in the movie Madagascar 3 (take your kids to animal movies, parents!) Ever since, she’s been a huge fan of the spotted furry felines – snow leopards and common leopards, jaguars, cheetahs…  “and peacocks, snowy owls and mice”, she adds.

This future conservation champion is making a difference for snow leopards already!

This future conservation champion is making a difference for snow leopards already!

She learned more about the plight of the snow leopard from books and magazines like ‘Ranger Rick’, and from her parents, who have enthusiastically encouraged Aurelia’s love for wildlife.

Cake! Cats! What more could a kid ever need?

Cake! Cats! What more could a kid ever need?

For Aurelia’s sixth birthday, her mother introduced her to the concept of raising money instead of gifts, and the young leopard lover immediately took to the idea! “I thought it was cool to donate money to the snow leopards!” Aurelia says. “Now, the Snow Leopard Trust can buy fences to keep the snow leopards out of the cages where the farm animals are, and to keep the people from shooting the snow leopards.”

the donation box was full to the brim at the end of the day!

the donation box was full to the brim at the end of the day!

When she’s grown up, Aurelia wants to become a scientist that studies animals and helps protect them. With her generosity, she is already having an impact today. “There are only very few snow leopards left. I hope many people will donate to save them!”

Aurelia’s parents are understandably proud of her, “and I’m proud of myself, too”, she says. She has every right to be!

Thank you, Aurelia – we’ll do our best to keep the snow leopards safe into the future!

Can Snow Leopards Coexist With Livestock?

The snow leopard’s habitat is heavily used for livestock grazing, and herds continue to grow. What does this development mean for the endangered cat? Our India team has found some interesting answers: livestock grazing isn’t necessarily a problem per se, but it can quickly become one if herds grow too much.


In many parts of the snow leopard’s range, the cat’s natural prey species – wild goats and sheep – are now outnumbered by their domestic cousins by several orders of magnitude.

herded sheep in the Himalayas

Domestic livestock outnumber wild snow leopard prey in many parts of the Himalayas

With domestic livestock numbers steadily rising, our Indian research team set out to find out what effect this development is having on the endangered snow leopard. Now, they’ve published their findings[1].

The study area in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India

The study area in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India (click to enlarge)

They surveyed 10 separate parts of the Spiti landscapes in the Indian Himalayas – a total of 4000 km2. For each sector, they estimated the number of livestock and wild ungulates as well as the presence of snow leopards.

Using 100 research cameras, lead author Rishi Sharma and his team were able to identify 24 adult snow leopards in the survey area.

Natural Prey Species Under Pressure

“When a predator’s habitat is also used for livestock grazing, it raises two main concerns”, Rishi says.

“One issue is livestock predation and the retaliatory persecution it can potentially lead to. In Spiti, this type of retribution is very rare though, due in part to local Buddhist belief systems, but also thanks to the conservation work that we’ve been able to do here for 15 years.”

The other main concern is what growing numbers of livestock will mean for wild ungulate populations.

Healthy grasslands are vital to snow leopards and their prey

Healthy grasslands are vital to snow leopards and their prey

“A landscape offers limited resources, and the snow leopard’s wild prey species are competing for these resources with domestic livestock. If there is too much livestock grazing, wild ungulate populations may eventually disappear. The cats would then be deprived of their preferred food source”, Rishi says.

Can Livestock Replace Wild Prey?

Earlier research has shown that the availability of wild prey is one of the most important indicators for an area’s snow leopard population – or, put more simply, the more wild prey, the more cats.

Interestingly, if an area has abundant wild prey, it’s also likely to see relatively high livestock predation – most likely because it will have a relatively high number of snow leopards.

But what if an area is used so extensively for livestock grazing that there is scarcely any wild prey left for snow leopards? Could domestic livestock just replace wild species in the cat’s diet and provide sufficient food to sustain snow leopard populations if herders were willing to accept a certain level of predation?

Or will the growing herds eventually spell doom for the cats if they drive wild prey away?

As this new study makes clear, the answer to the first question is a clear no. Livestock can’t replace wild prey.

No Wild Prey Means No Cats

“The study examined four factors that determine the suitability of an area for snow leopards”, Rishi Sharma says. “Number of wild prey, number of livestock, intensity of human activities, and ruggedness of the terrain. Of those four, the availability of wild prey appears to be the most important.”

Ibex in Mongolia

ibex and other wild snow leopard prey species are threatened by growing herds of domestic livestock

The correlation was in fact linear, which confirms previous findings: the more prey, the more cats. “The opposite is just as true”, Rishi says, “no wild prey means no cats”.

But what about livestock numbers? Do they have a direct influence on the presence of snow leopards?

The answer is yes – but the influence isn’t linear.

“The relationship between livestock numbers and the presence of snow leopards seems to be hump-shaped”, Rishi says. “Up to a certain point, growing livestock numbers go hand-in-hand with habitat use by snow leopards. There seem to be areas that are so productive that they can sustain relatively high numbers of both livestock and wild prey.”

But there is a tipping point: “When livestock density becomes too high, the number of cats decreases – probably because there isn’t enough wild prey left for them.”

In fact, there seems to be practically no wild prey at all in the two sampling areas with the highest livestock densities (more than 50 heads per km2). Not surprisingly, the cats avoided these two areas almost entirely.

Livestock And Cats Can Coexist – Up to a Point

Rishi’s results suggest that in the absence of direct persecution of snow leopards, livestock grazing and snow leopard habitat use are potentially compatible  - up to a certain threshold of livestock density, beyond which habitat use by the cats declines, presumably due to depressed wild ungulate abundance and associated anthropogenic disturbance.

Please help us fund grassland reserves for wild snow leopard prey species and other programs to protect the cat’s natural food source with a donation.

Acknowledgments:

Primary support for this project came through a grant from Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Endowment Fund. We thank Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Whitley Fund for Nature, Snow Leopard Network, Department of Science and Technology and Panthera for general support to our programs. We are thankful to the Chief Wildlife Warden, Himachal, Divisional Forest Officer, Kaza and the Range Officer, Kaza, for permissions and logistics. We are also thankful to Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi for help with data analysis and comments on the manuscript. We thank Suhel Qader for help with data analysis. Chandrima Home immensely helped with snow leopard photo identification. Chunnit Kesang, Tenzin Thukten, Rinchen Tobgey, Sushil Dorje, Chudim, Takpa are thanked for immense help in fieldwork.


[1] R. K. Sharma, Y. Bhatnagar, C. Mishra: Does livestock benefit or harm snow leopards? Biological Conservation 190 (2015), 8-13.

Full article available at http://www.academia.edu/13148983/Does_livestock_benefit_or_harm_snow_leopards

Crocheting for Conservation

For conservation to be relevant, effective and long-term, it must benefit both animals and people. Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) along with the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) is working with women in Spiti to produce and sell quality products like crochet handicrafts and others, and in turn, garnering their valuable support for conservation.


This post originally appeared on the website of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), our partner organization in India. We’re currently working with them on the launch of an Indian branch of Snow Leopard Enterprises, our handicraft-for-conservation program.

P10908071

For almost 20 years, NCF’s high altitude programme has been working to conserve the fragile wildlife of the Trans Himalayan region in India. In addition to working with local communities to restore wild ungulate habitat, finding measures to reduce conflict with wildlife and designing conservation education activities for government departments, youth, local communities, children, teachers, tourists and general public, we are always looking for new ways to enhance conservation and reduce conflict.

Nestled in the picturesque Spiti valley, Kibber and Chichim villages are at an altitude of around 4200 m. Spitians share their home with rare and beautiful animals like the snow leopard, wolves, ibex, and bharal. But life isn’t always easy for both people and animals in this cold, harsh, lofty landscape. Primarily an agro-pastoralist community, they are now diversifying their sources of income to offset losses caused by climate change and livestock loss to snow leopard and wolves, amongst other factors.

In 2013, we teamed up with women from the two villages to set up a pilot project to produce and sell local products that could supplement their livelihood. We have collaborated with many talented and big-hearted artists like Aarika Solanki, Sarah Thomas, Sandhya Menon, Sandhya Srinivasan, Mala Srikanth, Arpit Agarwal and others to organise regular workshops on developing new products, and improving the quality and design of existing ones.

Products2

The women are already very comfortable working with yarn, and are now crocheting a variety of handicrafts ranging from earrings and bookmarks to table mats. We are also looking at exploring other crafts like block printing and embroidery that use local motifs, wildlife and landscape as inspiration.

Our focus, however, is not limited to handicrafts: we hope to provide a viable market for agro-produce as well. Our very first such product is a crunchy, healthy preparation of roasted barley sprinkled with a medley of spices.  We are now looking to sell these products, and many others (ideas for some of which are still in the kiln), in local, national and international markets.

This year, we hope to help these enterprising women make their first sales, under the brand Shen, which is also the local name for the snow leopard.