Feral dogs have been seen chasing snow leopards and bears away from their prey. Growing populations of free-ranging dogs are becoming a real threat to wildlife in many parts of the snow leopard’s range. Liu Mingyu, a researcher in China, is tracking dogs with GPS collars to better understand their behavior – and eventually address the threat they pose.
This post originally appeared in National Geographic’s Cat Watch blog
The images are enough to make you stop in your tracks. A pack of feral dogs has cornered a frightened young brown bear. Another group of canines has chased away a snow leopard, the big cat’s long tail visible for a second before it disappears.
These photos illustrate what is rapidly becoming a real threat to snow leopards and their ecosystem – but also to the people living in these areas. In many parts of the snow leopard’s range, free-ranging dogs are hunting domestic livestock as well as wild prey species, or chasing native predators away from kills. As their numbers are growing, these problems have become more common. In India’s Spiti Valley, for instance, dogs may now be causing more damage to the local economy through livestock predation than snow leopards and wolves combined.
In order to address this emerging threat, we first need to understand these dogs, their populations, behavior, diet, and interactions with wildlife.
To gain these insights, Liu Mingyu, a young PhD student at Peking University is tracking several free-ranging dogs in China’s Three Rivers area, a key snow leopard habitat zone on the Tibetan Plateau, with GPS collars.
Mingyu’s work is made possible through the support of Partnership Funding by Fondation Segre, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature – a partnership program that is allowing promising young snow leopard researchers in multiple countries to get trained as future conservation leaders and contribute to our understanding of this endangered cat and its habitat, and the threats it is facing.
“I want to understand how free-ranging dogs interact with and influence native carnivores like the snow leopard”, Mingyu says. In the Three Rivers area, feral dogs are often found near Buddhist temples, where they usually find plenty of food. But clearly, as his photos prove, some dogs venture out further from the temples at least occasionally and interact with the area’s wildlife.
To follow their movements, Mingyu decided to put GPS tracking collars on six dogs living near three temples. A few months after starting the experiment, he has analyzed preliminary data from two collared dogs.
While they have very different home ranges in terms of size (6.1 km2 and 1.4 km2 over the span of a month, respectively), both dogs appear to stay away from the area’s prime snow leopard habitat for the most part. “The dogs’ core home range doesn’t seem to overlap with snow leopards very much”, Mingyu says. “But the GPS data support what we’ve seen on photos: every now and then – presumably when they don’t find enough food – the dogs travel further for hunting and scavenging, and step into the home ranges of snow leopards.”
On those trips, the threat the dogs pose to snow leopards becomes most evident. But even when they’re not venturing into snow leopard habitat and clashing with the cats themselves, the free-ranging dogs are affecting the ecosystem, and wildlife in particular.
“Trash is one of their main food sources, but these dogs also hunt. Once, I saw one of them catch a pika myself”, Mingyu says.
To address the threat that dogs pose to local wildlife, their populations need to be kept in check. “We need to start by managing trash better. That will cut off their main food source”, Mingyu explains. “But we might also need to explore sterilization campaigns.”
In Spiti Valley, similar efforts to curb feral dog populations have shown promising first results. Liu Mingyu’s research should provide further insights that can help refine such ongoing initiatives, and inform a solution to the problem in the Three Rivers area.
These efforts are part of a three-way MoU for snow leopard conservation in China between Shan Shui Conservation Center, the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera. Liu Mingyu is a recipient of support from the Snow Leopard Trust, thanks to Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature.
In our eco-camps, school kids in snow leopard habitat learn to reconnect to nature. The program has been a success in India and Mongolia for many years. Next year, we’re planning to launch eco-camps in Kyrgyzstan as well – so our Kyrgyz team visited a camp in Spiti, India, to learn from their colleague’s experience.
By Venera Amankul, Operations Assistant, Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan.
I traveled to India with my colleague Altyn Kazakbaeva, who is SLFK’s Education and Community Engagement Coordinator, to visit a nature education camp, which was conducted in Spiti, Chomoling, a beautiful pasture above Kibber village.
The main goal of our visit was to learn about the program and observe the way of conducting activities for kids, and to get some information of the organizing procedures in all, as we are about to start running the eco-camp program in the Shamshy Wildlife Sanctuary in Kyrgyzstan sometime next summer.
We were able to consult with Dr. Pranav Trivedi, the Director of Conservation and Education with our India team, who came up with the eco-camp concept and curriculum. He’s been very helpful in preparing our own proposal to the Ministry of Education of Kyrgyzstan to get a permit for conducting nature education camps.
The kids at camp enjoyed good weather, colorful landscapes and very interesting and interactive games. Starting from the very first village of Spiti valley, we were nicely surprised to meet people very similar to us, and later we could feel some similarity of our cultures and even our languages!
We had a great chance to meet participants of the Indian Snow Leopard Enterprise (SLE) program in Kibber village. During the summer, all local women work in their pea farms from early morning until sunset. Despite this, most of them agreed to meet us in the evening, which we appreciated very much.
We also got to visit Key Monastery in Spiti valley, the oldest and biggest one in this area. The monastery has a collection of ancient murals and books of high aesthetic value. The hospitality of the monks is amazing; just like we’re used to from home! One of them welcomed us warmly into his home, offering cups of steaming tea/chai with biscuits, and made a present for all of us!
The next day, we were lucky to be invited to an event which was held in honor of the chief administrative authority. Young monks demonstrated a customized dance and local women performed another local dance to a native song.”
Altyn’s and Venera’s visit to India is a fantastic example of what can be done when we combine our resources and learn from one another. This trip has not only helped them plan and conceptualize the Kyrgyz eco-camps, but has also increased capacity and communication between our incredible field teams in general, which will help strengthen our conservation efforts across the range.
Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, Mongolia’s largest protected area, is home to the endangered snow leopard and many other rare species. The Snow Leopard Trust has been partnering with the park for six years, training and equipping rangers for conservation and research. This week, the park celebrated its 20th anniversary.
At a celebration in the provincial capital of Dalanzadgad, officials highlighted the importance of Gurvan Saikhan (“Three Beauties”) National Park as a snow leopard stronghold. With the newly established Tost Nature Reserve and the adjacent Great Gobi National Park, Gurvan Saikhan is part of one of the world’s largest continuous protected areas for the endangered big cat and its prey.
With our Mongolian partner organization, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF), we’ve worked in the nearby Tost Mountains – now the Tost Nature Reserve – since 1996, conducting the world’s longest-running snow leopard study and fighting for the area’s protection alongside the local community.
In 2010, we began expanding our study into Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. Since then, our team has trained park rangers in using GPS and QGIS technologies as well as camera trapping and monitoring techniques. Thanks to the support of SLCF and SLT, all Gurvan Saikhan park rangers have been supplied with GPS units and binoculars – perhaps a first for a Mongolian National Park.
Today, the park rangers of Gurvan Saikhan are playing a crucial role in studying the area’s snow leopard population as well as their prey. They are helping us monitor most of the park with research cameras.
At the celebration to mark Gurvan Saikhan’s 20th anniversary, park officials expressed their gratitude for the long-term collaboration with SLCF and Snow Leopard Trust. Snow Leopard Trust Assistant Director of Science, Gustaf Samelius, who attended the event during a recent field visit, highlighted the crucial role of park staff in particular for snow leopard conservation, and thanked them for their hard work.
Gustaf and his colleagues, Snow Leopard Trust Regional Ecologist Justine Shanti Alexander and SLCF Manager of Monitoring and Research Purevjav Lkhagvajav, were kindly honored for their work by park officials with medals of appreciation.
One year after devastating flash floods washed away their livelihoods, dozens of families in our conservation partner communities in Pakistan’s Chitral district have been able to rebuild their lives – thanks to the generosity of Snow Leopard Trust supporters.
In Goldoor, a village near Chitral Gol National Park, the floods of July 2015 had washed away an old, unfortified retaining wall, entering the village and destroying water channels and standing maize crops. Mir Ammanullah, the president of Goldoor’s Conservation Committee, recalls the catastrophic night: “We lost our entire livelihoods due to this horrible flood; even drinking water was not available for us and our livestock.”
Help came from an unlikely place – a worldwide community of snow leopard lovers. Our local partner organization, the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF) Pakistan, had worked with the people of Goldoor for many years to help them coexist with the area’s snow leopards. Thanks to our supporters’ generosity, they were able to step up for the community in this time of urgent human need. “It was a miracle when SLF approached us in these difficult times. With their help, we’ve rehabilitated our water channels and reconstructed the destroyed retaining walls that keep the Nullah (water stream, Gol in local language) at bay.”
“200 families are benefitting from this gift! We are all very grateful for what you have done for us”, Mir says. “Thanks to the reinforced retaining walls, the rains have not affected our water channels and crops this summer”, he adds.
“Help came to us because of the presence of the snow leopard and other wildlife, and our community’s efforts to protect them”, Mir says.
In nearby Drungah, a community of 3,000 people, the main pipeline supplying water for livestock, crops and orchards had been wiped away by the floods. Thick layers of mud and debris had blocked irrigation channels. Thanks to your help, the community has now been able to build a new, more solid pipeline at a location that’s much less vulnerable to disasters.
“The entire community is benefitting from this new pipeline. It has created an immense amount of goodwill toward conservation”, says Kashif Syed of the Snow Leopard Foundation.
We’re conservationists, our expertise and mandate lie in the conservation of ecosystems – and yet, we could not stand aside during this humanitarian crisis that affected families, communities, villages we’ve partnered with for over a decade to protect the endangered snow leopard.
The kindness our supporters have shown in helping the flood-stricken communities of Chitral has humbled and moved us deeply. They’ve not only made it possible for these families to rebuild their lives, but also strengthened the conservation partnership we have with them.
Check out candid footage from a ‘snow leopard signpost’ – or, as some would call it, a cat communications center.
In order to communicate, snow leopards leave markings on the landscape that other cats will find. They scrape the ground with their hind legs and spray urine against rocks.
Called snow leopard ‘sign’, even feces can act as a signal to other cats. Snow leopards tend to mark along topographic features such as ridgelines or the base of cliffs. These markings enable snow leopards to locate each other and identify the boundaries between home ranges. Scent marking in particular may also help the cats locate mates during the breeding season.
At one such location, a research camera captured several snow leopards leaving their individual marks over the course of a couple of months. Enjoy the candid footage!