2015 has been dubbed the “Year of the Snow Leopard” by the 12 range countries. For the Snow Leopard Trust, it will be a year full of exciting challenges – and thanks to your outstanding support in 2014, we’re hitting the ground rolling!
This past fall season, you have set records in donations, adoptions and purchases for the benefit of snow leopard conservation!
On GivingTuesday, you helped us unlock a match, for a total of over $40,000 in donations – the largest ever single-day total in our history.
Then, you kept the momentum going and contributed to a total of more than $100,000 in online donations and sales for December; the first time we’ve ever reached this milestone.
These funds will allow us to get to work on some of our most ambitious projects in 2015:
In India, we’re planning the country’s first ever GPS collaring of snow leopards.
In partnership with the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and NCF India, our team is currently testing equipment in the field; making sure everything is planned perfectly for this exciting, pioneering project.
The Indian study will complement our ongoing long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi – a very different habitat from that of the Indian Himalayas.
Led by country director Kuban Jumabai uluu, our team in the Kyrgyz Republic will continue its groundbreaking work on the country’s largest-ever snow leopard population study, surveying the vast, remote Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve with research cameras – purchased thanks to your amazing generosity on Giving Tuesday!
The team’s previous efforts have already produced a series of stunning photos. But more importantly, as the dataset grows and grows, Kuban and his team can start to analyze and draw conclusions on the area’s cat population – and we’re eagerly awaiting the results!
In Mongolia, we’re planning to expand highly successful grassroots community conservation initiatives such as Snow Leopard Enterprises, our flagship handicraft program that just reached $1 million in sales last year. The same program will also be launched in India in the coming year – another step forward in its development.
We’ll also continue to grow the livestock insurance program, which compensates herders for livestock lost to snow leopard predation.
On the international level, your support will allow us to continue to play a leadership role in the Global Snow Leopard Forum and on the path to realizing the dream of securing 20 snow leopard landscapes by 2020, as outlined in the Bishkek Declaration.
In particular, we’re supporting the salaries of key members of the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan; program director, Keshav Varma, and program officer, Koustubh Sharma.
Thanks to the great end-of-year results, we’ll also be able to help facilitate a steering committee meeting in the spring of 2015, where management plans for the protection of these snow leopard landscapes will be discussed.
Thanks to a growing number of research cameras, our scientists are gaining more and more insights into the elusive snow leopard’s hidden life in the remote mountains. Here are some of the best photos they managed to take in 2014!
Here’s to a Happy 2015 – with even more awesome pictures of your favorite big kitties!
New photos taken by remote research cameras in Mongolia’s South Gobi have revealed the extensive wanderings of a snow leopard. Within a year, the cat was photographed in two different mountain ranges, separated by 40 km of steppe! The findings support the notion that habitats and populations may be more connected than previously assumed.
By Dr. Koustubh Sharma, Senior Regional Ecologist
A couple weeks ago, I was analyzing a set of research camera photos that had been taken last winter in Mongolia’s Noyon Mountains, looking for familiar patterns and scars on the otherwise stealthy, elusive snow leopard. Little did I know I was in for a major surprise!
Cataloguing and analyzing research camera photos of snow leopards is the type of work that makes you realize that all cats are indeed gray at night! Most active at dawn and dusk, snow leopards have a knack for having their picture taken in the darkness (if at all!). Sometimes they also move so fast that all we get is a furry, vaguely cat-shaped blur. All this makes it rather difficult to distinguish them as individuals.
Still, with a bit of practice, you learn to recognize individual cats by their fur patterns and other features. However, you don’t always quite trust your eyes, especially when they’re seeing something completely unexpected.
In my case, the unexpected even had a name: Khasar, the scarred warrior snow leopard!
There he was, staring right at the camera. There is no mistaking his face, which bears the scars of what must have been ferocious battles with other snow leopards.
I had seen Khasar, named after Genghis Khan’s famously scarred warrior brother, several times before. He had made appearances in photo sets from the summers of both 2013 and 2014.
Those photos, however, were from Nemegt, separated from Noyon by a good 40 kilometers of steppe.
Crossing the Steppe
On satellite photos, the snow leopard habitats of Mongolia’s South Gobi look like scattered islands; small mountain ranges rising over endless, desert-like steppe.
Nemegt and Noyon, the two mountainous “islands” where Khasar has shown up, are separated by about 40 kilometers of flat, empty land; bisected by a dirt road that leads from the provincial capital, Dalanzadgad, to the town of Gurvantes – a road I have used many times to get from the local airport the our study site in nearby Tost Mountains.
Despite the evidence, it’s hard for me to visualize Khasar crossing this steppe, this road, at least twice! And yet, he must have done just that.
Khasar wasn’t the first to make this daring trip. We had seen two snow leopard migrate across the steppe into a new mountain range before: Aylagch, a young male, and Zaraa, a young female. We had tracked both of these cats with GPS collars as they dispersed from their mothers to seek their own home range. Both left their mothers behind and moved across the steppe from the Tost Mountains to Nemegt, searching for a place of their own. While we know for sure that Aylagch made the Nemegt Mountains his home, we haven’t seen Zaraa again since her GPS collar dropped off.
Khasar, however, is very different from these young transients. He seemingly didn’t cross the steppe in search of a new home, but instead has been going back and forth between Nemegt and Noyon, perhaps even patrolling the entire area regularly, or making regular excursions.
Unlike young transients, who seldom mark or scrape, Khasar makes sure to scrape at each scraping site, at least at those locations where we have photographed him this year so far; a behavior that suggests he may be marking his – possibly enormous – territory.
For comparison, consider the home range of Devekh, a male cat we’ve been tracking with a GPS collar, highlighted in the map in purple. He’s using an area roughly the size of Seattle – considerably larger than the ranges of most other cats we’ve seen. Still, even Devekh’s stomping grounds are dwarfed by the area Khasar seems to be patrolling.
Connected habitats, a connected population
Seeing Khasar move between these two mountain ranges is further evidence for the notion that the mountainous “islands” of snow leopard habitat in the South Gobi may be connected after all.
The snow leopards of Tost, Noyon and Nemegt are not isolated, but instead may be part of what scientists call a “metapopulation.
That would indeed be good news for snow leopard conservation, because connectivity between mountain ranges would help to maintain the genetic vigor among the cats of the South Gobi, making the population more robust.
However, it also means that we cannot just focus on protecting core habitat for snow leopards and other wildlife in the mountains – we also need to protect the buffers and corridors that allow them to migrate between neighboring habitats.
These insights are of course informing our approach to protecting populations on a bigger landscape level, as opposed to small clusters.
This approach is also reflected in the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP), which has been agreed upon by all range countries at the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum in Bishkek: Therein, the goal of securing “20 healthy cat populations by 2020″ explicitly mentions that connectivity with other populations is a key criteria for determining a healthy snow leopard population – a direct result of our long-term snow leopard research that our generous supporters have made possible!
Snow Leopard Trust staff are working with partners and the Kyrgyz parliament against a proposed law that would weaken protections for nature reserves in the country.
Kyrgyzstan’s protected areas are made up of core zones, which are off-limits to everything except scientific research, and buffer zones, where activities such as agriculture and tourism are allowed in certain circumstances.
Current law requires that core zones must make up at least 75% of each protected area.
But in early 2014, four members of the Kyrgyz Parliament introduced a draft law that would reduce the core area of nature reserves and expand the buffer zone, allowing potentially damaging development to take place in a larger proportion of protected areas.
Exactly how much larger isn’t clear, because the draft law simply states that core areas should be a “certain size.”
“Reducing the size of core zones would be detrimental as it would allow more disturbance, livestock, trophy hunting, tourism developments, and mining which are already prevalent in the surrounding areas,” says Dr. Charu Mishra, director of Science and Conservation for the Snow Leopard Trust.
Snow leopards are found in eight out of ten State Reserves in Kyrgyzstan, and these protected areas play very important role in the survival of rare species.
For example, Snow Leopard Trust scientists estimate that 10 to 15 snow leopards currently inhabit the Sarychat-Ertash Reserve, located in an area where Trust scientific research and community-based conservation programs are ongoing.
“A smaller core zone wouldn’t be able to support that many cats, putting the snow leopard’s survival at risk in the country as a whole,” says Kubanych Zhumabai uulu, or “Kuban,” the Trust’s program director in Kyrgyzstan.
The Environment Committee rejected the proposed law at first, but when it was reintroduced this fall the Committee quickly approved it and sent it to the full Parliament for a vote.
Reserves are Safe – for Now
A group of conservationists including Kuban drafted a letter expressing concern about the proposal and the potential threat it could pose for snow leopards and other species. Sixty-eight local and 14 international organizations signed the letter, which was distributed to members of the Kyrgyz Parliament just before the law came up for a vote.
Parliament members found the letter persuasive and, fortunately, voted down the proposal, though the proposal can be voted on twice more before it is permanently rejected. The team of conservationists will continue to work with Parliament and environmental groups to ensure the future of snow leopards is not inadvertently compromised due to unfriendly changes in laws and policies.
Seattle / Islamabad, 12/4/2014
Snow Leopard Trust; Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan; Gilgit-Baltistan Parks and Wildlife Department; Embassy of the United States in Islamabad, Pakistan; International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW); Snow Leopard Conservancy
A young snow leopard that has been kept in a small cage on the side of Pakistan’s Karakoram highway for two years after being captured will get a suitable enclosure soon–part of an educational rehabilitation facility that will raise awareness for snow leopard conservation.
The life of a snow leopard cub in northern Pakistan is about to change for the better! Six major national and international partners–Snow Leopard Foundation, Parks and Wildlife Department, Gilgit-Baltistan, US State Department’s Embassy in Islamabad, IFAW, Snow Leopard Trust, and Snow Leopard Conservancy—are partnering together to construct a new and specially designed 11,000 square foot wildlife care facility—the first of its kind in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region.
On Dec. 31, 2012 local villagers found a wild snow leopard cub, only a few months old at the time, and took it with them in hopes of protecting it from harm. Soon after, the news was brought to the notice of Wildlife Department in Gilgit-Baltistan, one of Pakistan’s northernmost provinces.
However, facilities to care for dislocated wildlife are inadequate in the province, and subsequently the young snow leopard has been living in a small roadside cage. Exposed to heat, traffic emissions, and frequent provocation by onlookers, Dr. Ali Nawaz, head of the Snow Leopard Foundation of Pakistan, calls this “an untenable situation for this wild animal.
In collaboration with international experts at Nordens Ark, a leader in wildlife care and rescue, Jaffar Ud Din, program manager at the Snow Leopard Foundation, led the development of designs for a facility that will be a safe and healthy new home for the cat. Construction is set to begin at the selected location in Naltar Valley in early 2015. This new facility will also host a Wildlife Education Center, where the public can learn about the snow leopard, its ecosystem, and the threats it faces.
“The U.S. Mission to Pakistan welcomes the opportunity to support the Pakistani and American organizations protecting this at-risk cub. The snow leopard has been called a national heritage animal of Pakistan, and we are confident that this project will help to educate the next generation on wildlife protection and stewardship principles”,s says Ambassador Richard Olson.
Most ‘rescue’ attempts are harmful
“The cub will be an important intermediary and ambassador between local people and wildlife,” Ali Nawaz agrees. Since communities play a ‘front line’ role in wildlife conservation, lack of awareness and environmental sensitivity are considered prominent threats to wildlife.
Building both cooperation and greater awareness among local communities for conservation is an important step in protecting Pakistan’s snow leopard population in the long term.
“One of the Education Center’s main purposes is to help people understand that it’s almost always best to leave wildlife in the wild, even young cubs” says Brad Rutherford, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Executive Director.
Local people felt they needed to rescue this particular cub because they were worried it would die of exposure. However, Rutherford affirms that, “often, mothers will return for their babies even when it appears they might have abandoned them.”
“One of our aims through the education portion of the facility is to help people to understand and decipher when and why it is okay to leave animals in the wild—even if they seem to be lost”, he adds.
“We are very happy to contribute in this effort to ensure that the snow leopard gets an adequate quality of life,” says Katie Moore, IFAW Director of Animal Rescue. “It is our hope that her story carries an enduring message on the importance of leaving wildlife in the wild.”
The Wildlife Education Center will serve as an anchor for ongoing wildlife and habitat education and outreach activities in the area.
No candidate for release
After the cub’s capture nearly two years ago, the Gilgit-Baltistan Wildlife Department looked to international experts to consult on the possibility of releasing the young snow leopard back into the wild.
The decision was made against trying to release this particular cat, since she now lacks all of the skills necessary to hunt and fend for herself. It was then that the Gilgit-Baltistan Wildlife Department decided to reach out to domestic and international partners alike, to not only meet this cub’s immediate needs, but to increase institutional capacity for proactive management in order to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.
“Gilgit-Baltistan is taken as the living museum for wildlife and hence encounter with wildlife in the wild is a common phenomena but we often come across embarrassing situations due to the unavailability of proper care and housing facility in the region, says Mr. Ghulam Muhammad, Conservator, Parks and Wildlife Department, Gilgit-Baltistan. “The current initiative will help boost conservation efforts in the region”, he adds.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy’s founder and director Dr. Rodney Jackson agrees:
“We believe every snow leopard deserves a better and more secure future. That being said, it is important to make sure local people in Pakistan, or anywhere else, will no longer separate a cub from its mother or remove it from the wild. We hope that this snow leopard will serve a useful role as an Ambassador animal, offering people who rarely see a snow leopard with the opportunity to marvel at its beauty and ensure other wild snow leopards are allowed to roam free from threats.”
Executive Director, Snow Leopard Trust
Leading the fight for the future of the endangered snow leopard in Pakistan, the Snow Leopard Foundation partners with international organizations such as the Snow Leopard Trust to better understand and protect this cat in this key range country.
The Snow Leopard Trust, based in Seattle, WA, is a world leader in conservation of the endangered snow leopard, conducting pioneering research and partnering with communities as well as authorities in snow leopard habitat to protect the cat.
Founded in 1969, IFAW rescues and protects animals around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy is dedicated to promoting community-based stewardship of the endangered snow leopard, its prey, and its habitat by transforming human-wildlife conflict and ensuring local people view snow leopards positively rather than as threats to their livelihood.
Photos of the snow leopard cub and the planned enclosure’s location are available for download here (photo credit for all images: SLF Pakistan).