With deep sadness, we’ve learned of the death of Lkhagvasumberel (Sumbe) Tomorsukh, Camp Manager and Research Assistant with our Mongolia partner organization, Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation. He was 27 years old.
Below is a tribute to Sumbe, written on behalf of all of us here at the Snow Leopard Trust by his friend and colleague, Dr. Koustubh Sharma.
The Mountain Climbing Machine that went away too soon…
He climbed the mountains like an ibex. He ran on steep slopes where most of us would barely manage to crawl. He cared for snow leopards and ibexes as if they were his own. He helped his colleagues and communities selflessly. He was a young promising researcher who hailed from the water-rich Khuvsgul province, but had taken to the arid Gobi desert as his second home. He was our treasured Mountain Climbing Machine. We had never imagined we would need to use past tense while describing Lkhagvasumberel Tumursukh, fondly known as Sumbe.
Sadly and shockingly, we lost Sumbe last week. Sumbe’s death is currently being investigated. His body was found in the Khuvsgul area last week and the funeral was held at his home earlier this week.
We met Sumbe for the first time in 2009, when he joined our camera trapping team as a student intern in the South Gobi to assist with the long-term ecological study on snow leopards (LTES). He was a young, honest and strong lad who didn’t speak much English, but had the passion to work in the mountains. He worked with a diverse team of Mongolian and non-Mongolian researchers and volunteers.
Within days he understood what it took to look for appropriate sites and set up camera traps, and soon enough he learnt how to set up camera traps in the field on his own. Everyone was so impressed with him that he was almost immediately absorbed into the team at Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF) led by Bayara Agvaantseren, Mongolia Program Director. Sumbe was hired full time in 2012 and became the primary Research Associate for Snow Leopard Trust’s Long-term Ecological Study (LTES) in Mongolia, and also conducted research throughout Mongolia for Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF), the partner organization to Snow Leopard Trust. Coming from a family with deep connections with nature, he was a natural with all the new tasks he undertook.
Sumbe became an indispensable member of our team. He was our key researcher in the field conducting prey surveys using double-observer methods, helping with camera traps set up, tracking down snow leopard collars whose satellite communication was broken or expired, managing the research centre, maintaining good relationship with the local communities, and assisting with collaring snow leopards
He began assisting with surveys and conservation programs in other parts of the country where Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation was operating. He also enrolled for his Master’s degree in the University, and as part of his dissertation conducted valuable surveys in the Tost Mountains in South Gobi using the method of double-observer counts. One of the finest papers on prey abundance using this methodology in the field came recently with Sumbe as the lead author. He also co-authored other scientific papers that focused on snow leopard population dynamics and snow leopard diets. He was developing into a fine scientist.
Sumbe had a never diminishing flame in him to learn and improve his skills. He spent several weeks in India, honing his statistical skills and knowledge about ecology while staying and studying with colleagues at Nature Conservation Foundation. This is when he also took a formal course in English.
In July 2014 Sumbe was awarded a grant from CREOi to travel to the United States to increase the capacity within Mongolia for snow leopard research and animal handling and care based on practices utilized by Sound Equine Veterinary Hospital Director, Dr. Cary Hills and Fish and Wildlife Department cougar experts as well as veterinarians at the Woodland Park Zoo. Sumbe eagerly developed and built upon his own skills and understanding of animal care including the safe handling of large mammals, helping him increase his ability to assist in the long-term ecological study with his ungulate studies as well as to assist in the snow leopard collaring project.
Sumbe was to present his work at the upcoming Student Conference on Conservation Science in the coming spring. His paper for oral presentation was selected by the conference organizers. He had also earned a spot to spend a month in UK to intern with some of the finest zoos, honing his skills on handling wild animals.
Sumbe will be missed sorely. Thinking of him will continue to bring a smile to us forever, but will also pain our hearts, for he left us much too early. His never-ending energy, unfailing enthusiasm and unmatched compassion will inspire us always.
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In parts of the snow leopard range, wildlife sometimes causes damage to local farmer’s standing crops before they can be harvested. In a pilot project, our team in India has deployed local guards in five villages to chase wildlife away and protect the crops. In four villages, this approach has reduced damages.
As we’ve recently mentioned here, abundant wild prey is essential for snow leopards. For farmers in the cat’s habitat, however, a growth in wild ungulate populations can spell trouble. In the past few years, locals of Spiti have seen a financial boom from the sale of green peas—a cash crop that is now commonly cultivated across Spiti valley during their annual agricultural cycle, in addition to barley which is the traditional crop. Blue sheep and ibex sometimes damage standing crops, especially green peas. Summer is when the problem reaches its peak.
Surveys have shown that this damage to crops helped create negative perceptions towards wildlife within many communities – which in turn is a big threat to the snow leopard!
Based on this learning, we have worked with local communities of five villages (Kibber, Chichim, Gete, Tashigang, Demul) to deploy local guards whose responsibility it is to ensure that wild ungulates do not enter the fields.
In October, after harvesting, our team went to check on the amount of damage reported from these villages. They were very happy to receive positive reports of reduction in losses from four of these villages.
One village reported a similar level of damage as in previous years, so the team and community will try to employ a more efficient mechanism to contain losses for next year.
Crop Damage Protection Guards were given a honorarium for a job well done.
Snow Leopard Trust scientists study how wildlife in India’s Spiti Valley responds to the growth of human development in the area.
Across the globe, wildlife habitats are being changed forever as humans are expanding further and further into wilderness.
Faced with this reality, conservationists are increasingly looking to understand how different species of wildlife cope with the impact of human development. How and why do some species adapt while others perish? And what can be done to ensure that more native species survive?
For the endangered snow leopard, an umbrella species with a very large home range, these questions are critical. Whether we like it or not, this cat will need to coexist with humans, and conservationists need to create conditions where such coexistence will be possible.
In the past two decades, more and more tourists have discovered India’s Spiti Valley as a travel destination. They’ve brought funds and jobs to this remote area in the Indian Himalayas – but they’ve also brought change. The number of hotels and restaurants in the valley has increased tenfold, and the amount of garbage that is generated as a result of that influx may have grown even faster.
This garbage, along with livestock carcasses, is a major food source for Spiti’s growing population of feral dogs. These dogs pose an increasingly important threat to local wildlife such as blue sheep and ibex, and even to the endangered snow leopard.
“Feral dogs compete with wild carnivores for food and space, they chase away and harass native wildlife, and they may carry and transmit diseases. Dogs are undoubtedly emerging as a threat to Spiti’s native species”, Snow Leopard Trust researcher Abhishek Ghoshal says, “and the availability of garbage as food is one of the main reasons behind the growing number of dogs.”
The Red Fox Has Adapted Well
While the growth of villages into townships in Spiti contributes to a major threat to some of the area’s wildlife, certain native species appear to have found a way to benefit from the changing environment. For instance, as Abhishek and his colleagues have found out, Spiti’s garbage has also become a prime resource for the red fox.
He led a study¹ that aimed to understand how the red fox responds to the changes that are occurring in its habitat. With his colleagues, Abhishek analyzed red fox scat samples from 10 villages to analyze its diet and estimate population densities.
Their results are a testament to the red fox’ ability to adapt: “In Spiti, human garbage has become the most common food source for the red fox during winter”, Abhishek says. “The more garbage is available in a particular village, the more red fox will theoretically be found nearby. But the dogs, being superior competitors as well as potential predators of the fox, can change this equation.”
Abhishek’s results show that the red fox may be able to thrive despite the influx of human development and the increasing urbanization in Spiti Valley, at least to a certain extent. “They’re generalists, which means they can use a variety of food resources”, Abhishek explains. “So if we can control the feral dog population, the red fox should be fine.”
Unfortunately, the same does not appear to be true for the snow leopard, Spiti’s top predator.
The snow leopard also faces a rapidly changing environment. Populations of natural prey species such as the ibex have declined over the past decades, leaving the big cat vulnerable. Unlike the red fox, the snow leopard may not be as adaptable. Another recent study by SLT scientists in Spiti, led by Rishi Sharma, found that the use of areas by the endangered cat goes down, for instance, as livestock populations in its habitat increase and wild prey decline.
Snow leopard abundance tends to be highest in those areas where wild prey is abundant, as shown by the Ph.D. work of SLT’s India program director Kulbhushansingh (Kullu) Suryawanshi. If there are no ibex or other wild prey species, there aren’t any cats, either. “The red fox seems to have replaced some of its natural food sources with more easily available human sources such as garbage”, Kullu says. “The snow leopard is much more specialized. It does kill and eat livestock out on the pastures, but it appears livestock can’t replace the cat’s natural prey.”
¹ Ghoshal, A., Bhatnagar, Y. V., Mishra, C., Suryawanshi, K.: Response of the red fox to expansion of human habitation in the Trans-Himalayan mountains. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 2015.
Acknowledgments: We are thankful to the Forest Research Institute University, Dehradun and Himachal Pradesh Forest Department (Wildlife Wing), Shimla, for the permissions and support. The fieldwork was supported by Narendra Babu Ecological Research Initiative Grant. We are also thankful to Foundation Segré / Whitley Fund for Nature for supporting our research and conservation programmes. Chhering Dorje and Takpa provided invaluable help during fieldwork.
Press Release, October 23, 2015
Cat lovers across the globe are celebrating World Snow Leopard Day on October 23rd to raise awareness for this endangered cat’s plight. Threats to the elusive feline range from poaching to the loss of habitat due to mining – and climate change may be emerging as yet another big challenge for the snow leopard.
The endangered snow leopard inhabits fragile high-mountain ecosystems across Central Asia – a part of the world that is particularly vulnerable to a changing climate. Scientists fear that large parts of these habitats could be impacted within the next few decades if the planet continues to warm at the current pace.
According to a projection by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), average annual mean warming will be about 3 °C by the 2050s and about 5 °C in the 2080’s over the Asian land mass, with temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau rising substantially more.
Consequences for the peoples and ecosystems of Central Asia could be serious.
For example, a recent study estimates that about 30% of snow leopard habitat in the Himalaya may be lost and heavily fragmented. The frequency of extreme climatic events is expected to increase, exacerbating floods and landslides, affecting local livelihoods, and snow leopard habitats.
The Snow Leopard Still Has A Future
This trend is certainly worrying, but no reason to despair quite yet: “The snow leopard still has a future”, says Dr. Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation Director, “but given that the cat’s habitat is likely to come under even more pressure in the coming decades, we need to make sure to protect as many snow leopard landscapes as we possibly can today. The more intact habitats there are, the better the snow leopard’s chances to survive the changing climate.”
Keeping snow leopard landscapes safe for the cats is a challenging task that requires multiple approaches.
“Obviously, protecting core habitats from immediate threats such as mining, poaching, or unsustainable trophy hunting of wild snow leopard prey species like ibex and argali is critical”, Charu Mishra says. “But it won’t be enough. The snow leopard is a landscape species; it needs very large habitats, so we also need to ensure that the cat can coexist with local communities in less protected areas. This will require a joint effort by authorities and civil society.”
The Snow Leopard Trust is partnering with communities in snow leopard habitat in the five main snow leopard countries, helping them secure and improve their livelihoods through livestock insurance and vaccination programs, the sale of handicrafts and other initiatives; winning their support for conservation.
On the political stage, SLT and other partners have been facilitating all the 12 range countries in implementing the Bishkek Declaration on the conservation of the Snow Leopard in 2013. These countries have since identified 23 landscapes to secure for snow leopards across the cat’s range under the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan.
In 2015, they’ve made further progress, forming a high-level steering committee and a permanent secretariat to manage this process, and have began work on management plans for these landscapes.
Looking for Strong Signals From Paris
While these efforts continue, the snow leopard conservation community will be looking to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris for a strong signal this December. It is of critical importance for the people and wildlife of Central Asia’s mountains that a strong agreement to combat climate change can be reached.