Reducing the losses suffered by farmers due to predation on livestock by snow leopards is a key to protecting the endangered cat. New research now shows that small changes in the way livestock are herded could make a big difference.
This post has also appeared on National Geographic’s Cat Watch blog
Snow leopard habitat is used extensively for livestock grazing and snow leopards sometimes prey on domestic livestock. Even though these events are not frequent, they cause significant economic hardship for herders and lead to retaliatory killings.
Now, new research suggests there may be ways to avoid most of those livestock losses. In a recently published paper[i], a team of scientists led by Snow Leopard Trust researcher Örjan Johansson pinpoints how snow leopard predation on domestic livestock tends to occur, and suggests specific improvements to herding practices that could help prevent it.
Asking all the right questions
“We knew that snow leopards like to eat ungulates, meaning both wild and domestic sheep and goats,” says Snow Leopard Trust researcher Örjan Johansson. “But beyond that, there are many open questions: How much of a snow leopard’s diet is made up of domestic species? How do the cats choose prey, and how much do they need? Are there diet differences between individual cats, or between males and females?”
“These questions are crucial for conservation,” explains Charu Mishra, the Trust’s Science and Conservation Director. “If we understand how snow leopards choose their prey and what factors influence these choices, we can do a much better job of helping local communities coexist with the cats. For instance, if we can predict where and when predation is likely to occur, we can focus our efforts there, which gives us a much better chance to prevent it.”
To get the answers they were after, Johansson and Mishra worked with colleagues from Panthera, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation and Grimsö Wildlife Research Station. Over a span of 5 years, they followed a total of 19 snow leopards fitted with GPS tracking-collars in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains – an unprecedented effort.
“Thanks to data from the collars, we could determine when and where a snow leopard made a kill,” Örjan Johansson explains.
With the help of numerous volunteers, the team was able to find more than 250 kill sites and identify the prey taken at each.
Previous studies have relied on scat analysis to get information about snow leopard diets. But “scats are anonymous,” Johansson says, “They give you an overview of what’s going on in a population, but they don’t tell you which cat left them, or when they were left, so you have no way of analyzing and comparing the predation patterns of individual cats. From scats, it is also not possible to separate instances of hunting from scavenging.”
With data on the eating habits of individual cats, the researchers were able to paint a much more detailed picture in this new study.
Snow leopards like it wild
“The first thing that jumps out is that 73% of all ungulates killed by snow leopards were wild. Only 27% were livestock,” Charu Mishra says. “This is a landscape in which livestock are at least ten times more abundant than wild prey. And yet, the cats mainly prey on wild species.”
This suggests that snow leopards kill livestock opportunistically, but prefer wild ungulates.
Snow leopards can sometimes get inside poorly constructed corrals and cause extensive livestock losses, and the Snow Leopard Trust has been working with herders in several countries to improve corrals.
However, a significant portion of snow leopard attacks on livestock takes place in the pastures, especially on stragglers that have inadvertently been left behind by herders.
“Many of these livestock kills happened at nighttime, when the rest of the herd was safely back at the corral,” Örjan Johansson explains.
Livestock lost in the pastures during the day were usually killed in rugged areas, where herders could easily lose sight of them.
A former recipient of the Whitley Award, known as the “Conservation Oscar”, Charu Mishra knows from years of experience how complex wildlife conservation issues tend to be.
This new research, however, suggests fairly straightforward measures that could make a big difference: “A significant part of livestock losses out in the pastures could perhaps be prevented if very rugged areas of the pastures could be avoided while grazing livestock, and if fewer stragglers were left behind at night,” he says.
If these small changes to herding practices are made and corrals are further improved to prevent cats from entering, livestock predation by snow leopards could be reduced significantly – to the benefit of cats and people alike.
This study was supported by the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences. Financial support came from Cat Life Foundation, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Kolmarden Zoo, Nysether Family Foundation, Twycross Zoo, Fondation Segré – Whitley Fund for Nature, and Woodland Park Zoo.
Kyrgyz team makes adventurous trip into the mountains to reward local communities for their role in keeping endangered snow leopards and prey species safe.
Snow leopard partner communities in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains have kept the cats and prey species in the their area safe throughout 2014, earning a conservation bonus for their efforts.
The remote Kyrgyz mountain communities of Ak Shyrak, Enilchek, and Uch Koshkon literally lay at the end of the road, just outside Sarychat Ertash Nature Reserve, the country’s prime snow leopard stronghold.
As civilization’s last outpost before the mountain wilderness, these villages could be prime spots for poachers and hunters to gather and restock supplies.
Instead, they have become crucial conservation partners!
All three communities have agreed to protect the cats as well as their wild prey species in the areas surrounding the villages, while earning a sustainable income through the sale of Snow Leopard Enterprises handicrafts they make from the wool of their livestock.
Each year, the communities are eligible for a bonus if no snow leopards or wild prey species are reported to have been hurt in their areas.
“In 2014, like in the 5 previous years, there was no reported poaching in the areas around our partner communities”, says Kuban Jumabai uluu, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Kyrgyzstan program director.
Past Incident Ends Up Strengthening Program
The last incident dates back to 2008, when a community member helped guide trophy hunters into nearby Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve, where they shot protected ungulates.
The entire community’s bonus was withheld after this incident. Community members then decided that the culpable party had to reimburse each family’s bonus instead. “This measure has certainly worked. Since then, cats and prey have been kept safe in these communities” Kuban says, “so we’re more than happy that we were able to pay these families their well-earned bonus once again in 2014!”
Paying a bonus may sound like an easy-enough transaction. But in this case, it entailed an adventurous trip into one of the remotest corners of the country.
“People in these communities don’t have bank accounts, so all payments are made in cash, in person” explains Cholpon Abasova, who coordinates Snow Leopard Enterprises in Kyrgyzstan.
Thus, in order to give these local conservation heroes their rewards, Cholpon and Kuban traveled to all 3 partner villages this February.
“Besides handing out bonuses, we also wanted to recognize a handful of longtime community conservation activists for their outstanding efforts”, Cholpon says. Six community members from the three villages were selected and given a special certificate the team had created for this purpose.
Roads are full of snow around this time of the year, but the team didn’t want to wait for spring to visit the communities.
The trip turned out to be quite an adventure: “At one point, I really thought we were stuck and would have to spend the night out in the cold”, Cholpon recalls.
“It was only thanks to Kuban’s experience driving these roads in harsh conditions that we got out”, she says.
“These people work hard all year long to help protect snow leopards”, said Kuban, after the team had safely made it back to the capital, Bishkek. “One such trip is nothing compared to what they do.”
17-year old Saloni Wadhwa has her career goals figured out. She wants to be a wildlife scientist. Earlier this year, she interned at Nature Conservation Foundation, our partner organization in her native India, in their snow leopard program. This is the story of how she fell in love with the “Mystic Cat in the Abode of Snow”.
by Saloni Wadhwa
As I stood clutching a big snow leopard stuffed toy, grinning from ear to ear, I felt like no other day could have been a happier day of my life!
If you are about to ask me whether I was seven years old that day, I was not.
I was – I am – seventeen years old, standing at the threshold of my future, waiting, wondering, lost and trying to find my career path as a Wildlife Scientist.
You may well wonder why I had this abnormal attraction for snow leopard stuffed toys. But, this attraction and love is basically for snow leopards in the wild in particular… and wildlife in general. So now, I am going to begin my story of how I fell in love with the mystic cat in the abode of snow.
Early Encounters With Animals
Let us rewind back to the time when I was actually seven years old. A brown, furry, warm, adorable darling entered my life during this time. This darling, my dog Scruffy, a Labrador retriever, was my first close encounter with animals. Being an only child, I found solace in him as a sibling. Scruffy taught me how to love and be a good friend, one of the very first lessons I learnt from animals.
Moving on to when I was a little older, I visited the Discovery Cove, a wonderful place in Orlando, Florida, tucked away cozily from all the glitz and glamour of every fantasyland and theme park known to mankind. Here, I had an amazing experience with the citizens of the sea, which left a lasting impression on me.
I swam in a coral reef with tens of thousands of coral fish swimming past me, and a few rays lazily gliding through the rippling water.
But, wait! This was not all. I also got to meet two wonderful bottlenose dolphins, Tyler and Coral – and the Marine Biologist-in-charge, who put into my little mind that to work with these creatures, I would have to actually study Marine Biology and not just know swimming!
I decided from that moment on that I would become a Marine Biologist and I started reading a variety of encyclopedias and field guides to understand the behavior of marine mammals.
However, this was not the end of my animal encounters. A few years later, I began horse riding and began working my way through equestrian events like show jumping and tent pegging. On one godforsaken day, unfortunately, I lost balance, slipped off my horse, M3, and fractured my arm.
There was another significant lesson that I learnt through this fall: After I fell down, M3 came and stood over me. Dizzy with excruciating pain as I was, I wondered why he had done that. I looked around to see fifty horses that were following us coming to a halt. I then realized that they couldn’t have noticed something as insignificant as me, but that a big horse like M3 could cause them to stop and not trample over me.
On that fateful day, my respect, love and trust in animals rose. All I would give M3 was a hug, a pat, an occasional kiss and lots of carrots everyday. He rewarded me for my kindness by saving my life and I am forever indebted to him.
These things spurred me on to explore further, animals, wildlife and conservation efforts. With this in mind, I attended a summer camp with Mysore Zoo, one of the largest and best zoos in Asia promoting these activities.
This summer camp gave me a glimpse of the activities being done to help wildlife and preserve our mother nature. I joined the zoo as a volunteer and started attending to the needs of zoo animals and the public. I was encouraged by the management to begin teaching about wildlife and conservation efforts at the zoo, which led me to deliver several lectures on wildlife to budding students and writing about it in the Zoo Newsletters.
I had the deep desire to know about wildlife and conservation efforts in the field in India. For my biology project at school, I wanted to learn about big cats in India. During this period, I interviewed Dr. Yash Veer Bhatnagar, the Senior Scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) and India Program Director at the Snow Leopard Trust on his work with snow leopards.
Reading Spots, Identifying Cats
Dr. Bhatnagar recognized my directionless, but strong passion and love for wildlife and gave it a path to tread on. I started to work on identifying snow leopards in camera trap images under his and his colleague Ajay Bijoor’s guidance. This process was fascinating, but at the same time was wrought with challenges. To elaborate my point, we will now look at how I identified a particularly tricky sequence in a Laksha Pang camera trap.
In this sequence, three snow leopards came in quick succession, pushing the previous snow leopard and trying to mark the territory as their own. We were able to determine that these three were a mother and her two female cubs we had previously seen on an earlier series of photographs, where there was actually a litter of three. However, one of them, probably a male cub, had apparently now moved into a solitary lifestyle, while the other two female cubs stuck with their mother.
This sequence is one of my most memorable memories of identification, as I could observe an amazing timeline develop – the little inquisitive cubs in 2012 growing into strong women surviving in one of the harshest climatic conditions in 2013.
The more I researched on this wonderful big cat, the more I was fascinated by it.
The snow leopard is a medium sized cat and weighs about 35 – 45 kg. It was first classified into its own genus as Uncia uncia, but was later found to belong to the big cat family and was given the scientific name “Panthera uncia”.
‘Uncia’ is derived from the old latin word unus, which meant ‘single,’ ‘one’ – and the nomenclature was given due to some of the cat’s unique features. These include its pelage, which contains rosettes on a pale grey-brown background and also its strangely long and disproportionately huge tail.
There are two perceptions to the use of its tail. One is that it uses it for balancing on cliffs while walking, as it has no opposable digits to grasp.
The other is that it has to reach its nose to cover the nares, when the ambient temperature is very low. The tail is used to warm the small pocket of air going into the lungs so that it can reach the body temperature by the time it gets to the lungs.
The snow leopard lives in remote areas spread across a large swath of mountains. It inhabits approximately 2 million sq.kms, spread over the Himalaya and Central Asia. Its typical habitat is the arid and semi-arid mountains of the Himalaya, Mongolia, Siberia and the Tibetan Plateau.
The main ongoing conservation effort to save this wonderful creature in India is under the Project Snow Leopard of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Dr. Bhatnagar summed up the project’s goal: “We are trying to conserve the snow leopard. But for the conservation of a flagship species, especially an apex predator like the snow leopard, the security of its prey is equally necessary. For the security of its prey, the security of the plant layer is very important. So, as you can see, these issues are all interlinked, and we’re really working to conserve the entire ecosystem in order to save the snow leopard.”
Project Snow Leopard works in partnership with the people who live in snow leopard habitat. This cat needs vast home ranges, so instead of creating small, strictly protected areas, a landscape-based approach is more suitable. Local communities are not made to vacate their lands, but instead help in the conservation process.
A Close Encounter of the Feline Kind
I want to end my story by telling Dr. Bhatnagar’s story of his first encounter with the mystical snow leopard.
One day, he and his assistant decided to follow a fresh snow leopard trail near a goat kill and started walking up a steep shale slope. Shale is very slippery and so they were literally walking up and sliding down. After sometime, due to sheer exhaustion, he gave up, satisfied that they had come so close to finding a snow leopard. His assistant continued to climb higher and reached the ridge top, but could not sight the snow leopard anywhere. As Dr. Bhatnagar stood despondently, suddenly the cat almost barged into him.
It screeched to a halt barely one meter away from him and stood with its eyes wide and its tail hitting its head. Both he and the snow leopard were very startled! It turned and ran in the opposite direction, pausing to turn and look at him again, posing for the most precious photograph to be clicked!
Actually, what happened was his assistant disturbed the snow leopard when he was walking up as it was resting under an overhang and it bolted out – only to barge into Dr. Bhatnagar.
Now can I tell you what made me fall in love with this elusive cat?
Well, everything about it basically. Its build, stalking technique, camouflage, its elusiveness and most importantly its enchanting and hypnotizing eyes… The conservation techniques put in place for this fast dwindling species interests me immensely and I will try contributing my little bit to help conserve the Ghost of the Mountain!
Snow Leopard Trust scientists count ibex and argali in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains. Their numbers appear stable – and just sufficient for now to sustain the area’s snow leopard population. But it’s a fragile balance.
In Mongolia’s Tost Mountains, ibex and argali are the snow leopard’s preferred prey species. We’ve calculated that an adult snow leopard kills and eats an ungulate roughly every 8 days – or between 40 and 50 animals a year.
From our long-term camera trapping in the Tost mountains, we have estimated that the area is home to 10 to 14 adult snow leopards at any given time.
What we didn’t know for a long time was whether there was enough prey in Tost to sustain these cats.
The problem: counting ibex and argali in the rough, inaccessible landscape of Tost is almost as difficult as counting the famously elusive snow leopard.
However, over the last three years, our field team, led by Sumbee Tumursukh, have refined a method to reliably estimate the population of these wild ungulates in Tost for the first time: the so-called “double observer technique”, which had previously been used by our India team to count ungulates in the Himalayas.
Now, Sumbee and his colleagues have published the results of their hard work in the peer-reviewed journal Oryx1.
The good news: Tost appears to have just enough wild prey to sustain the local cat population.
Our scientists believe that it takes around 75 ibex or 50 argali per snow leopard in an ecosystem for the cats to survive. In the case of Tost, that would add up to around 1100 ibex (or 750 argali) as a minimum for 14 snow leopards.
“We have counted an annual average of roughly 900 ibex and 160 argali, and these populations appear to be stable, or, in the case of the argali, slightly increasing”, says Sumbee Tumursukh. “Those numbers are just sufficient to support the cats we know to live here.”
Still, it’s a fragile balance – one that could be upended all too easily: “If an epidemic, or a sustained drought, were to decimate the ungulate population for a year or so, it could have very serious consequences for the snow leopards of Tost. Ideally, we’d like to see larger, more robust ungulate populations that would be able to absorb such events and would eventually allow for the number of cats to grow”, Sumbee says.
Tost currently enjoys some protection. After a series of mining exploration licenses had been issued for the region, local communities teamed up with our Mongolia partner, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, to save this fragile ecosystem.
In 2010, Tost was declared a Locally Protected Area by the administration of Gurvantes soum, the local authority – which meant that no new mining licenses could be issued. More than 20 existing licenses, however, remained valid.
Now, our Mongolia team is once again assisting the communities of Tost in their fight to better protect their ancestral lands. Our research in the area has proven that it’s an important habitat for the endangered snow leopard and its prey species. This latest study, the first reliable count of wild ungulates in the region, underlines the importance – and fragility – of this unique ecosystem even further.
“The National Government of Mongolia is currently considering to make the Tost Locally Protected Area into a Nature Reserve; a much more wide-reaching status”, Sumbee says. “Most importantly, any future mining activities would be ruled out. We’re hoping that our research will help convince the decision makers to make this important step.”
1 Lkhagvasumberel Tumursukh, Kulbhushansingh R. Suryawanshi, Charudutt Mishra, Thomas M. McCarthy and Bazartseren Boldgiv. Status of the mountain ungulate prey of the Endangered snow leopard Panthera uncia in the Tost Local Protected Area, South Gobi, Mongolia. Oryx, available on CJO2015. doi:10.1017/S0030605314001203. Abstract: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0030605314001203
We would like to thank People’s Trust for Endangered species for funding this work and the Whitley Fund for Nature for support to our programs in Mongolia and across the snow leopard range. We thank Panthera, who was a partner in the Long Term Ecological Study.
Nothing quite compares to the rush of excitement we all experience upon discovering a wild snow leopard cub on a photo taken by one of our research cameras.
Here are some of the very best cub pictures we’ve come across over the last years – some tiny, some a little more grownup!
Your support keeps this important research going. If you enjoy these photos, please consider sponsoring the ongoing effort to monitor the populations of these endangered cats with a donation. Thank you!