Snow leopards can’t go to the vet to get a health check, so we’re taking the vet to them, checking the cats (and their prey) for diseases!
Infectious diseases including plague, anthrax or rabies are known to occur in parts of snow leopard habitat – and they could be a threat to the cats or other wild inhabitants of their ecosystems, as well as to local communities and their livestock. With help from experts at the Swedish Veterinary Institute, we’re working on identifying the most common diseases in the cats’ ecosystem in order to stop them from spreading.
In 2011, over the course of fieldwork, our team found 4 dead snow leopards in our study area in Mongolia’s South Gobi. None of the dead cats showed any signs of injury – to the naked eye, they appeared to have passed naturally. Still, such high mortality was puzzling.
Could these cats have died from a disease?
Tuberculosis, parvovirus and canine distemper have been identified as the culprit in several deaths of captive snow leopards. The canine distemper virus was also found to be responsible for almost 1000 African lions in the Serengeti in 1994 – nearly a third of the region’s population. Plague, anthrax and rabies are other diseases known to occur in parts of Mongolia’s snow leopard habitat – some could potentially be fatal for the cats.
Unfortunately, we may never know whether one of these diseases killed the four snow leopards in our study area.
Securing tissue samples for testing in the harsh conditions of the South Gobi is extremely difficult, and some of the diseases known to occur there are dangerous for humans as well – examples include the above-mentioned plague, anthrax and rabies. A necropsy of the snow leopard carcasses would have required safety equipment that our teams didn’t have at their disposal in the remote Gobi.
The four dead cats have remained on our minds though, and we’re determined to find out how much of a threat diseases are to snow leopards and their ecosystem – as well as to livestock and ultimately local communities.
To this end, we’ve assembled an international team of wildlife disease researchers, led by Dr. Jonas Malmsten of the Swedish Veterinary Institute, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Veterinary Advisor. The team, including Ph.D. student Carol Esson, is initiating a number of disease studies, collecting and analyzing samples from wildlife as well as domestic livestock and herder dogs in South Gobi.
Ultimately, the results of these studies should combine to form a comprehensive picture of the diseases prevalent in the area.
Herds and Herders at Risk?
Snow leopards aren’t the only animals that may carry diseases, and our researchers aren’t the only people potentially at risk.
“Local herders could be exposed to dangerous bacteria or viruses when handling infected livestock”, explains Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation Director.
“Beyond this immediate safety concern, livestock health is paramount to the economic stability of herder communities in snow leopard habitats of Asia. Losing livestock to disease can be a major blow to a family”, Charu says.
Preventing diseases from killing livestock obviously helps communities – but it also benefits snow leopards and their natural prey. “Diseases spread between species in an ecosystem. They’ll go from a domestic goat to a wild ibex, from a herder dog to the snow leopard”, Charu explains. “In addition, the fewer livestock they lose to disease, the more tolerant herders will become toward predators such as the snow leopard”, he adds.
In Pakistan, where we’ve been partnering with local communities to vaccinate livestock for several years, results have been very encouraging: a review has shown these vaccination programs to lower livestock mortality rates by as much as fifty percent.
The Mongolian authorities, meanwhile, have assisted herders with vaccinating livestock when needed as a reaction to particularly severe outbreaks of diseases in recent years. Our work will help identify the sources of potential outbreaks more easily and quickly.
“The long-term goal is to establish a disease monitoring and surveillance system, where we can keep an eye out and prevent major disease outbreaks. That will help snow leopards, local communities, and their livestock”, Charu explains.
This work is made possible by the support of generous partners including the Swedish Veterinary Institute, Helsinki Zoo and the Whitley Fund for Nature. Thank you very much!
Press Release. Seattle, October 23, 2014.
Cat lovers across the world are celebrating the first International Snow Leopard Day on October 23rd. With range countries and the conservation community more committed than ever to saving this endangered cat, there is reason for hope. At the same time, shrinking habitats and prey numbers as well as poaching continue to threaten the remaining snow leopards.
Committed to raising awareness for the plight of an iconic species, the twelve Asian countries that are home to the cat have declared October 23rd, 2014, to be International Snow Leopard Day.
The day marks the first anniversary of the adoption of the landmark Bishkek Declaration on the conservation of this elusive big cat, adopted on October 23rd, 2013, at the first Global Forum on the Conservation of the Snow Leopard in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The range countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) also resolved to celebrate 2015 as the International Year of the Snow Leopard
Made possible by the initiative of the Kyrgyz president, Mr. Almazbek Atambaev, and coordinated by the Global Tiger Initiative at the World Bank, the Forum resulted in an unprecedented agreement that could change the snow leopard’s fate, with the range country governments agreeing to the first Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan and committing to protecting at least 20 landscapes as secure snow leopard habitat by 2020.
Earlier this year the twelve range countries have gone above and beyond that goal by identifying 23 landscapes covering more than 500,000 sq/km of snow leopard habitat (see map below – download hi-res).
In addition, the countries are working on landscape management guidelines and two-year work plans.
Over the coming years, the range countries, international conservation organizations and public as well as private funding institutions will work together to ensure that these landscapes can indeed be a safe haven for the endangered cat. To coordinate the efforts mapped out in the GSLEP, a working secretariat has been established in Bishkek.
Revised Snow Leopard Survival Strategy
Both planned and ongoing snow leopard conservation efforts are getting an added boost on International Snow Leopard Day with the publication of the revised Snow Leopard Survival Strategy.
This document, edited jointly by the conservation organizations represented in the Snow Leopard Network, establishes a scientific baseline and identifies priorities and best practices in protecting the endangered cat.
Despite the progress that’s being made for the snow leopard, the cat remains endangered. There is no accurate, range-wide population count, the most recent estimate from the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program in 2013 estimated the number of snow leopards remaining in the wild at a dangerously low 3920 – 6390.
The cat’s habitats, which are increasingly fragmented, continue to be under pressure from mining, large-scale development, and climate change. Populations of natural prey species are thought to be in decline as well. Poaching and retaliation killings by local herders who fear for their livestock are another major threat that remains very much acute.
Worldwide Effort Needed
In the last few years, the international community has made more significant steps to saving the snow leopard than ever before. It is crucial that those efforts be intensified in the coming decade, as the cat’s fate may indeed be decided by our generation.
Snow Leopard Trust
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. www.snowleopard.org
Brad Rutherford, Executive Director, Snow Leopard Trust. firstname.lastname@example.org / office: +1 206 632 2421, cell: +1 206 713 6446
One of our research cameras in Kyrgyzstan has captured amazing photos of a snow leopard carrying a freshly killed marmot. See the pictures and video below!
[scroll down to see the video]
Like the author of a good suspense novel, this Kyrgyz snow leopard spares us the gruesome details of what’s to come.
Instead, after catching sight – or perhaps scent – of its prey, the cats walks away… leaving us waiting for the outcome.
A few minutes later, the predator is on its way back…
And we finally find out what it had spotted earlier…
Lunch! And dinner. For a couple of days!
Devekh, the snow leopard we’re tracking in Mongolia, is living large: over the last couple of weeks, he’s used an area of 400 km2!
Devekh’s home are two neighboring mountain ranges named Tost and Tosonbumba.
Last year, we had observed Devekh migrating from his “old” home into an area that had previously been occupied by Ariun, another big male cat who had disappeared (and who we believe has sadly died).
A homebody with sudden bouts of the travel bug?
Throughout early spring of 2014, Devekh mostly remained in his new home range – an area he shared with at least two female cats, Ariunbeleg and Dagina, who might have been the reason for his takeover of Ariun’s old range in the first place. He took occasional trips to other parts of the mountains, but always returned “home” after a short while.
In May and June, however, Devekh suddenly turned into something of a nomad, venturing to the fringes of Tost and Tosonbumba; areas he had previously avoided. Then, just when we got ready to label Devekh a restless wanderer, he started to confine his movements again in the summer, returning to his previous core range – only to resume his extensive excursions again in the fall.
We don’t know at this stage what causes Devekh’s occasional wanderlust. It could just be the travel bug, suddenly befalling this cat overnight. His movements might be entirely random. Or he might venture out every now and then to look for new female companions at the fringes of his home range. Further studies – including comparisons to other cats – will hopefully reveal if there are seasonal patterns to these wanderings.
In any case, Devekh does show us once again how important it is for these cats to have sizable, connected and secure habitats that allow them to roam according to their needs. Over the last couple of weeks, Devekh has been using an area of around 400 km2 – that’s the entire size of Seattle, for instance.
We’ll continue to track Devekh until his collar drops off in the spring of 2015.
As part of our ongoing long term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi region, we’re currently tracking one male snow leopard, a cat named Devekh, with a GPS collar. The goal of this study is to learn more about the way snow leopards use space, how they move around and interact with other cats, and what they need to survive. We’ve tracked a total of 19 cats over the last years.
The GPS collar, which will drop off automatically next spring, send Devekh’s location to a satellite, from where it’s transmitted to our computers.
The long-term study is a joint project of the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in cooperation with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism, and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.
It’s made possible through the support of:
Cat Life Foundation
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Swedish University of Agricultural Science
Whitley Fund for Nature
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
South Lakes Wild Animal Park
Safari Club International Foundation
Snow Leopard Trust UK
Edrington Group & Edrington Americas
Relive our Indian team’s epic research camera study in Spiti valley.
Led by the Snow Leopard Trust’s own Senior Regional Ecologist, Koustubh Sharma, 20 people braced the extreme cold to cover an area of more than 1500 square kilometers with remote-sensor research cameras in an effort to monitor the area’s snow leopard population.
This is their story, as told in tweets by our friends at Project Snow Leopard India.