Throughout the snow leopard range, Trust researchers like Rishi Sharma and Li Juan are tracking snow leopard populations with research cameras. They hike up steep slopes and scramble down rocky crevices to find the perfect spots to set up their cameras – and then they make the same trip again a few months later to collect the photos and look for hidden gems! Check out their best pictures at the bottom of this post!
Snow leopards aren’t in the habit of posing for cameras, so while they provide valuable data, many of the photos our researchers capture probably won’t ever be featured in the pages of glossy nature magazines.
Every once in a while, however, there is a real gem among the hundreds of blurry black-and-white images. Indian field scientist Rishi Sharma recalls the moment he discovered one of the most amazing research camera photos to date: “Our cameras take a picture whenever something moves in front of them, so each time I analyze new pictures, I find myself looking at hundreds of yaks, goats and birds. Hidden in between are a few pictures of snow leopards, mostly travelling at night. Identifying these cats helps us to monitor the population, but the photos aren’t much to look at. But last fall, after having looked at hundreds of blurry night shots, I found one photo that made all the hiking worth it. A fluffy cub – not more than a few months old – was padding along the ridge on a sunny day. It was as though the cub chose the best light to have its picture snapped.”
Much like Rishi Sharma, Li Juan is used to browsing through hundreds of photos. She conducts her photo research in the Sanjiangyuan region on the Tibetan Plateau in China, home to one of the world’s largest snow leopard populations. One of Juan’s cameras in the area is focused on a rocky junction between two valleys near the township of Suojia. This location seems to function as something of a signpost for the local fauna, as a large number of mammals pass there at different times, with many of them sniffing and marking the spot. Snow leopards are one of the species that visit regularly: “Within 2 months, we photographed at least 29 different individual snow leopards in this area”, Li Juan recalls, “including five female cats with cubs. Four females had one cub each, and one cat had two cubs.”
While most of our research camera photos don’t have this iconic quality, even the most blurry black and white picture of a cat’s tail at midnight can have scientific value. “Data from these photos will allow us to develop a better understanding of the snow leopard population. Will it increase due to the conservation programs that protect the cats and increase their prey? How many cubs make it through the harsh winters? We hope to find answers to these crucial conservation questions” says Rishi Sharma.
Tracking a Cat’s Growth on Camera
In our Long-Term Ecological Study in Mongolia, we’ve been in the unique position of following a handful of cats over several years with GPS collars. Research cameras in the same area allow us to keep track of these cats once their collars drop off – so we can paint a more complete picture of a cat’s life.
For instance, in 2009, we were able to photograph a tiny female cub, nicknamed “Dagina” for the first time, closely following her mother, Agnes.
The next year, we met Dagina again in a new set of photos, as a young adult.
In 2012, we managed to collar her and track her movements. A few months later, while taking two key government officials on a tour of the area Dagina had chosen as her home range, Puji and Sumbe, two of our Mongolia team members, suddenly saw themselves face to face with Dagina’s own young cub – and managed to snap a picture that rivals our best research camera photos! “The cub had likely explored outside of the den while its mother was off hunting”, Puji remembers. “We took a quick photo, and then quietly left so as not to scare him.”
Check out 10 of our most iconic research camera photos ever:
The Kyrgyz branch of our handicraft-for-conservation program, Snow Leopard Enterprises, is up and running again this spring! Three years after the last shipment, a new selection of beautiful and unique products has arrived in Seattle. At the same time, the community Snow Leopard Enterprises is based in has elected a new local coordinator, Raiysa Sultangazievna, to lead the program in the coming years.
Snow Leopard Enterprises is a conservation program that works directly with the people who share snow leopard habitat in various range countries to create sustainable economic opportunities that to offset any losses they have to livestock from snow leopards and reduce the motivation behind poaching. The program provides training and equipment that enables participants to make beautiful handmade items from wool. We purchases these items at mutually agreed upon prices and sell them through our online store. In return, participants agree to protect snow leopards and wild prey species in their area from poaching.
Raiysa Sultangazievna has been a participant in Snow Leopard Enterprises since the program got its start in Kyrgyzstan in 2002. As our new local coordinator, she will use her vast experience and her unique local perspective to help lead the future development of Snow Leopard Enterprises in Enilchek, a community of around 25 families located close to the Sarychat-Ertash Reserve, Kyrgyzstan’s prime snow leopard habitat.
“This program is very important for us; because of the income it brings, but also because it has made us more aware of the value of wildlife around us”, Raiysa says. “And it has strengthened relationships in our community. All the participants enjoy working together; and these days, we all get together to celebrate holidays and birthdays as well.”
New Experiences in Bishkek
New jobs bring new experiences. Last week, Raiysa travelled to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, for the first time – and had the very first Skype meeting of her life shortly after. Accompanied by the Snow Leopard Trust’s Kyrgyzstan Country Director, Kuban Jumabaev, Raiysa visited Bishkek’s bazaar, one of the largest markets in Asia. She collected product ideas, samples, and information on prices and materials. Back in the Snow Leopard Trust office, after an exhausting day, another new experience lay ahead: Her first ever Skype call. Half a world away, in Seattle, Jennifer Snell Rullman, the Trust’s Assistant Director of Conservation, had gotten up at 4:30 am in order to have a chance to talk to Raiysa, who would board an overnight bus back to remote Enilchek later that day. “Now that Snow Leopard Enterprises is back up and running in Kyrgyzstan, I wanted to hear Raiysa’s perspective on the program and what ideas she has to make it even better for the cats and the community”, Jennifer says.
“Snow Leopard Enterprises in Kyrgyzstan had been temporarily suspended in 2009. Our team conducted an 18-month assessment of threats to snow leopards in the country, including an evaluation of the effectiveness of Snow Leopard Enterprises as a positive conservation solution”, Jennifer explains. As the evaluation showed that the program did indeed contribute to keeping Kyrgyzstan’s cats safe, Snow Leopard Enterprises Kyrgyzstan was re-initiated in the communities of Enilchek and Ak-Shyirak in 2011.
An order was placed soon after, but getting it to Seattle has posed a logistical problem. “Due to extremely harsh weather in 2012 that kept mountain passes closed for many months, we could only return to these villages recently”, Jennifer recalls. “Now, we are particularly excited to be able to visit the community again, offer the income to the participants after a long winter of making products, and to see at the long-awaited shipment of products that has finally arrived in Seattle from Kyrgyzstan.”
The unique handicrafts from Snow Leopard Enterprises, including beautifully embroidered felt booties for children in a variety of vivid colors, are exclusively available in our online store.
Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo has been a partner of the Snow Leopard Trust and a leader in snow leopard conservation and research for many years.,We’re currently teaming up with Woodland Park Zoo to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy for snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan.
Late spring is snow leopard cub season, as female cats retreat to well-hidden den sites to give birth! Each cub that is born in the wild is a beacon of hope for the survival of this endangered cat – but as they are faced with various threats, these cubs need our help in order to grow up safely.
Are you new to snow leopard conservation? Then these cubs need you! Right now an extra $10 will be donated to protect snow leopards for every NEW supporter of the Trust.
Wondering if you can participate? If you haven’t made a donation or an adoption in the past five years, join us! If you’ve enjoyed your purchases, but haven’t donated for snow leopards, now is the perfect time to do more. Making a donation or adopting a snow leopard today will give snow leopards an additional $10!
This additional $10 is enough to vaccinate 8 livestock including sheep, goats, and cattle through the Livestock Vaccination Program. In exchange for help protecting their livestock from disease, herders in the program will protect snow leopards from poaching.
Now is the perfect time to protect cubs and their families through cutting-edge research and community-based programs. We need 300 new supporters to take advantage of this opportunity. Won’t you give today?
P.S. If you have given for snow leopards before, thank you very much! Your generosity has allowed us to establish successful conservation programs in five snow leopard range countries. It is your continuing support that enables us today to reach out to new potential donors in order and expand our programs and protect even more cats! If you can help us in this process, please make another gift today! Thank you so much!
Find out why tracking snow leopards with GPS collars is an indispensable part of our efforts to save them – and how we try to minimize the impact the collaring has on the cats.
In order to protect snow leopards, we have to understand their needs & behaviors
We’ve learned much of what we know about snow leopards from GPS collar location data
Snow Leopard Trust researchers have developed best practices for safely immobilizing and collaring cats
Sometimes, people suggest that in order to protect wildlife, humans should just leave animals alone. Unfortunately, in today’s globalized world, just keeping our distance won’t be enough to ensure the survival of endangered species like the snow leopard.
Of course, in ancient times, their unspoiled range used to provide plenty of everything the cats needed. But whether we like it or not, those days are over. Today, humans are impacting global and local ecosystems in various ways – on scales large and small: Our energy consumption has effects on the global climate – and local precipitation patterns and temperatures in snow leopard range countries. Our tastes in fashion here in the West influence what kind of livestock are reared by herders in Central Asia – and how much wild prey populations of the snow leopard get depleted as a result. Our technological innovations help make minerals such as gold so indispensable that more and more pristine mountain ranges of Central Asia are being dug up to meet the demand.
We can’t help but affect wildlife, even if we try to keep our distance. What we can do, however, is to find ways for species like the snow leopard to coexist with humans. But in order to do so, we first have to understand what their most important needs are.
Some insights can be gained through observation. Others can be deduced. But if the species you’re trying to understand – and ultimately protect – is as elusive and rare as the snow leopard, visual observation is nearly impossible, and there is little previous information to deduce from.
We’ve learned much of what we know about snow leopards from GPS collars
Along with other technological innovations, the technology to study rare and elusive species has also seen rapid advances. Our best chance to get the information we need to devise effective conservation strategies for snow leopards is through equipping wild cats with GPS collars and tracking their movements.
In fact, we’ve learned much of what we know about snow leopards today – from their spatial needs to their major food sources – from the location data scientists collected from such collars over the last decade.
For instance, it was only after one of our radio-collared young male snow leopards left his mother’s home range and moved some 60 km across inhospitable Gobi steppes to the next mountain chain and established his home range there, that we realized the importance of protecting the intervening steppe habitats between mountain ranges. Often, these relatively flat areas are under particular pressure from the development of new roads and mining operations. Without radio collaring, we would have never realized the important role the play in the dispersal of snow leopards.
If you’ve followed some of the adventures of our field researcher and collaring expert Örjan Johansson on this blog, you know that collaring snow leopards is as difficult as it is important – for several reasons. There’s the tricky terrain; temperatures tend to be freezing, and wild snow leopards don’t exactly seek human company – so they have to be immobilized in order for us to fit a collar on them.
It’s understandable that certain readers may find this process rather upsetting. However, as described, we consider it a crucial part of our conservation effort. Our highly professional team of scientists is doing all they can to minimize the impact on the cats and keep them safe. Örjan, who has the training of a researcher, the skills and instincts of a hunter and naturalist, and the heart of a conservationist, leads all our capture operations – and it is his priority that not a single snow leopard be hurt on his watch
Since 2009, our team has collared a total of 19 cats, which has allowed us to develop a method for capture and immobilization that can be considered best practice in the field. Örjan and his colleagues, global leaders in snow leopard research, have now published[i] the results of their experiences and insights for safe immobilization of wild snow leopards in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, a peer-reviewed scientific publication. You can read the research paper here.
Step-by-Step Guide to Collaring a Wild Snow Leopard
The first step to collaring a cat is setting a snare to capture it. Used with skill, these snares are safe for the cats, and once a snare is tripped, an alarm sounds that instantly alerts our researchers to investigate the site. Once captured, the cat has to be immobilized so that a GPS collar can be fitted on. Since every species has a unique physiology, finding the right mix of drugs to achieve safe immobilization with minimal side effects is challenging.
Building on existing studies on the immobilization of bears and lions with a combination of sedatives and tranquilizers, and seeking the advice of experienced zoo veterinarians, our team has developed a drug protocol specifically designed for the immobilization of snow leopards. Cats that have been immobilized with this method have shown good physiological responses and minimal side effects.
Since snow leopards are most active at dusk and dawn, most captures happen when it’s very cold. The cats therefore have to be kept warm throughout the time of their immobilization. Our team does this with isolating blankets or sleeping bags, warm water bottles, and constantly monitoring body temperature.
When temperatures and terrain are considered safe, the team administers an antidote to help the cat recover as soon as they have fitted the collar and gathered all samples, keeping the immobilization time as short as possible. However, if cold temperatures pose a threat to an anesthetized snow leopard during its recovery, the team may move it to a safer terrain and allow more time for the anesthetic to wear off before waking the cat.
Capture and immobilization of any animal, particularly of an endangered species, is a highly skilled job and cannot be learnt by simply reading a bunch of papers or following field guides. Nevertheless, as scientists make progress, it is important to share the knowledge. We are currently assisting and sharing our experiences with WWF, helping them with their plans to conduct a radio-collaring study on snow leopards in Nepal. The method Örjan Johansson and his team have developed works: Although some level of capture related mortality is generally recorded in various studies worldwide, we haven’t lost a single cat due to capture operations; no cat we’ve collared has died even 3 months after the capture (sadly, one collared cat was killed by a herder a few months later), and there have been no significant complications or injuries to any of the cats in the process.
As of today, we are tracking 5 collared cats in our Long-Term Ecological Study in Mongolia. The data we’ve gathered from their collars has helped us understand more about snow leopards and their behaviors and needs, from dietary habits to range sizes. And it has helped local communities to convince the government to establish a Local Protected Area in our study region in the Tost Mountains, including the intervening steppe habitats between Tost and the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park where our radio-collared cat dispersed and established his home range.
[i] Örjan Johansson, Jonas Malmsten, Charudutt Mishra, Purevjav Lkhagvajav, and Tom McCarthy, 2013: Reversible immobilization of free-ranging snow leopards (panthera uncia) with a combination of Medetomidine and Tiletamine. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 49(2), 2013, pp. 338–346.
This paper was the result of a collaborative effort between the Snow Leopard Trust and our Mongolia Partner the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Panthera, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and the Swedish National Veterinary Institute.
When you do your shopping with the Snow Leopard Trust, you not only get unique, quality products, you also help protect snow leopards in very direct, tangible ways.
Unique handicrafts from snow leopard habitat
Many of the items in our online shop, from baby booties to embroidered napkins, feature this little cat icon:
The icon indicates that the product was handmade by families in snow leopard habitat that participate in our conservation efforts through our program Snow Leopard Enterprises.
Most of these families depend entirely on their herds of livestock for their livelihood. As many of them live on less than $2 a day, the loss of even a single animal can create great financial hardship. The snow leopards that share the mountains and valleys these families live in are predators, and while the typically hunt wild prey species, the cats will sometimes target livestock grazing in their habitat too. To protect their animals, herders sometimes retaliate against snow leopards, threatening the survival of the cats.
In order to address this poverty that leads to retaliation against snow leopards, the Snow Leopard Trust has partnered with local herding communities to create Snow Leopard Enterprises. The program provides training and equipment that enables participants to make beautiful handmade items such as baby booties, animal ornaments or rugs from the raw wool of their livestock.
We purchase the finished items at mutually agreed upon prices, and sell the items through our online store.
Cards, Calendars and More
Not all the products in our store feature the little cat icon that indicates they were made in snow leopard habitat. Thanks to the generous support of artist partners, we can also offer items such calendars and cards, t-shirts or water bottles featuring beautiful snow leopard photos and artwork.
These popular products were not produced in snow leopard habitat – but they all help protect snow leopards as well, as all proceeds from their sale go to conservation programs in the five countries the Snow Leopard Trust is active in.