Researcher Örjan Johansson has returned from another season at Base Camp. They were not able to collar any snow leopards, but he and his colleagues still got a lot done!
I’ve just returned after six busy weeks in the South Gobi, where Gustaf Samelius, Kullu Suryawanshi, Per and David Ahlqvist and myself have been working at our base camp with our Mongolian colleague Sumbee Tomorsukh. Our goal had been to capture a couple of cats and equip them with GPS collars for our Long-Term Ecological Study. Things didn’t go as planned I’m afraid. The only cat that we managed to catch was Devekh, a male we had collared back in May so there was no need to re-collar him. The area where we were working is on the very edge of Devekh’s home range, so I had hoped that we wouldn’t catch him – but that didn’t work out. While he walked into our snare, the other cats in the area – the ones we had been after – managed to avoid them! On four occasions we had snow leopards stepping in the snares but missing the trigger by an inch or two.
We felt like it was more bad luck than one deserves, but I guess that is how it goes. Perhaps next time we will catch a dozen cats instead.
While we were certainly frustrated by our futile attempts to catch a cat, we did also engage in some more productive – and rewarding – endeavors. Led by Sumbee, we’ve started a pilot study for an upcoming project where we will be working with local communities to build predator-proof corrals. We’ve interviewed herders on livestock losses and measured existing corrals, finding out what needs to be done. The information on livestock losses will help us compare the pre and post-intervention damages and examine the effectiveness of the intervention. Sumbee will continue this work through the winter, and hopefully we can begin building and upgrading corrals next spring.
We continued with the visits to so-called cluster sites, where the collared cats have stayed for a longer period of time. Often, these are sites where the cat has made a kill. With the data we collected these past weeks, we are now ready to write a scientific paper about snow leopard prey choice and how many prey animals each cat kills per month – and what differences there are between males, single females and females with cubs. This autumn, we looked at prey sites from Devekh, Ariun and Ariunbeleg. It was quite interesting to see how much prey Ariunbeleg has to catch in order to sustain her two big cubs – each of them probably eats more than an adult cat since they are quite big and growing. She has to make a kill at least twice as often as the males! The last time she had cubs before this, she raised three or four, which is an astonishing accomplishment!
A Herder’s Apprentice
Usually, I work with herders from a scientists’ perspective. There was one day, however, where I got to practice my own goat herding skills! One of our neighbors was moving his livestock to a winter camp site. He asked if I could help to keep the goats away from the snares as they passed through the valley where we were trying to catch cats. Essentially, I had to circle the herd on my bike at a distance great enough not to scare the goats, then park by the snare and wait for the last of the 250 goats to pass – and then make it to the next snare before the first goats reached it! For a beginner, I think I did a pretty good job, as we didn’t catch a single goat.
Örjan Johansson is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). He is the field scientist in our Long Term Ecological Study about snow leopards in South Gobi, Mongolia. Örjan’s groundbreaking research is generously supported by Nordens Ark Zoo in Bohuslän, Sweden, and by Kolmården Zoo, in Norrköping, Sweden.
This 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.
This fall, Tristan Williams-Burden, a long-time volunteer with the Snow Leopard Trust from Seattle, had the opportunity to spend two months with our team in Kyrgyzstan, assisting in everything from setting up camera traps to shipping handicrafts around the world. He shares some of his fondest memories of an unforgettable experience.
By Tristan Williams-Burden
Sary-Chat Ertash Nature Reserve, Kyrgyzstan—Riding across a long valley in the Tian Shan Mountains, I hear only our horses trotting across the rocks and the hushed “choo choo” of the rangers urging them on. Some of the world’s last snow leopards live here.
There is a stillness in the air, a breeze is a song playing on the grass. This is a country full of steppes and mountains untouched, with a lake at the heart of the land. But more importantly, this is a land of generous people who want to help save their environment.
Kubanych Jumabay, or Kuban, is the Kyrgyzstan Country Director for the Snow Leopard Trust. I first met him at the SLT annual fall fundraiser in 2012. He was wearing a traditional Kyrgyz felted hat and a big smile across his face. Stepping off the plane in Bishkek, it was hard to miss that smile.
Originally from a small village on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, I get the feeling Kuban is something of a country boy. That’s part of what makes him such an incredible asset to saving the cats—he’s not afraid of the back country, of getting his hands dirty, of confronting poachers.
Kuban acted as my mentor. Even though I was there strictly as a volunteer, he was generous with his time, energy and knowledge.
The days with Kuban in the reserve were some of the best days I’ve ever had. Showing the rangers and me how to find the signs of the leopard: Teaching us to lean under rocks to smell for the pungent scent left by a cat marking its territory; finding just the right angle to place our trap cameras so maybe we’d get a glimpse of the elusive creatures.
Climbing a ridge with loose rock slipping under our feet, Kuban shows us how to find just the right spot for the cameras, knowing the pictures are worth the effort. These pictures show that what we are doing is making a difference.
It made me proud to have been one of Kuban’s “students”.
Friends and Felt
Cholpon Abasova is the Kyrgyzstan program coordinator for the Trust’s handicraft-for-conservation program, Snow Leopard Enterprises. I spent days with Cholpon at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek choosing felt and thread to be used by local Krygyz who sew slippers and rugs and other felted goods for Snow Leopard Enterprises. Hand picking each length of felt, searching through bolts of dyed felt, stacked higher than my head, we talked about life.
Cholpon became one of my best friends. She invited me into her family, letting me really get to know her brother and sisters. I’d spend most days with her helping with all kinds of tasks, from documenting shipments to delivering felt.
Cholpon, Kuban and I delivered the felt from the market to remote villages where it is made into goods for Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE). Loading up a Toyota Four-Runner with the felt, made of local sheep wool, we made the 16-hour drive to the villages. About five of those hours were off-road. Arriving late, we were welcomed with chai and offered a place to sleep.
In the morning, we unloaded. The village women — SLE participants — began cutting and sewing, talking and drinking chai, much like a quilting bee.
It is one thing to know where a product is made, it is another to see first hand how it is made. To see what I means to the people to be part of the Snow Leopard Enterprises program. Listening to the women talk, it was clear they participate in SLE not just for the money — but because they want to ensure that this land is the same for their children, as it has been for them.
Working for the Future
The environment here is fragile, just like the future of the snow leopards. At the Global Snow Leopard Conversation Forum 2013 in Bishkek, I met other Snow Leopard Trust staff from countries such as Mongolia, India and Pakistan. Much talk focused on how to protect Kyrgyzstan’s precious high altitude environment. Our conversations reinforced my feelings that what the Snow Leopard Trust does makes a difference.
People make the difference. SLT staff, participants, volunteers and donors.
I am grateful for the opportunity to volunteer with such a fine organization.
And, already, I miss the long drives to the villages with Kuban and Cholpon, talking about their lives, their history, their stories. I miss waking up after a long, cold night in Sary-Chat, waiting for the sun to warm the hills and looking for argali to take their morning drink from the river.
One of the goals of our long-term study in the South Gobi is to be able to observe snow leopards over several generations and to gain insights into reproduction and survival rates. Meeting this cub again after a long winter is a sign of hope for the region’s snow leopards. What makes this encounter particularly exciting is the fact that this young cat represents the third generation of snow leopards we’ve been able to study in Mongolia! Its mother, Dagina, is the daughter of Agnes, one of the female cats we’ve been tracking with GPS collars. While Dagina has been successfully raising her offspring, Grandma Agnes gave birth to another cub herself this spring – so the family keeps growing! Dagina’s cub hasn’t been officially named yet (we only name the cats we manage to collar), but we’ll come up with a nickname to refer to it by in the meantime!
Saving the endangered snow leopard will require a great, collective effort by range country governments, snow leopard conservation experts and – perhaps most of all – local as well as global communities. At the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), range country delegations agreed on an ambitious plan that will be the basis of this joint conservation effort for years to come. Now, this plan, the “Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP)” is available to the public.
The “Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP)” outlines the major threats that put the snow leopard under pressure across its range. It then specifies how these threats can be addressed, identifies priorities and sets concrete actions each range country can implement.
A centerpiece of the plan is to identify and secure 20 snow leopard landscapes across the cat’s range by 2020, or “secure 20 by 2020.” Each landscape would contain at least 100 breeding age snow leopards–that’s 2,000 cats, or up to half of the wild population, over the next seven years. Each landscape would also support adequate and secure prey populations; and have connectivity to other snow leopard landscapes. Key habitats would be protected by rendering them ‘no go’ areas for damaging land uses such as mining.
In the GSLEP, the importance of community involvement as a key principle in snow leopard conservation has been explicitly acknowledged by all range country governments for the first time. We have helped identify crosscutting best practices that can be scaled up across the cat’s range to address threats. Many of those best practices focus on involving local communities as stewards of biodiversity and champions of conservation. They include livestock insurance and vaccination programs as well as corral improvements, and local people’s involvement in monitoring and habitat protection–all things the Trust has been focusing on for years.
How much is this going to cost?
Conservation on the global scale comes at a significant cost: the range countries estimate that all the measures outlined in the GSLEP will cost about $190 million between now and 2020. A large number, no doubt, but one that is dwarfed by the value of all the services healthy mountain ecosystems render to billions of people across Asia and the world. For instance, more than a quarter of the planet’s population relies on the mountains of Central Asia for their drinking water – a resource nobody can put a price tag on.
Where will this money come from?
Some of the cost will be covered by range countries, intergovernmental and multilateral organizations like the World Bank, Global Environment Facility or UN Development Program. Some will also have to come from NGOs like the Trust – and ultimately, from the thousands of individual supporters out there who care about snow leopards, their ecosystem and the people they share it with.
You can download the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem & Protection Plan here as a PDF.
Playing OviPets, an online pet breeding & genetics game, hundreds of gamers have contributed to raising more than $10,000 for snow leopard conservation.
OviPets is an online pet game focused on genetics and breeding. In the world of OviPets, players are able to adopt, raise and care for pets, much like they would for live animals. There’s an important twist though: OviPets players can breed new pets according to the principles of genetics, which allows them to create new species and mutations of species in various colors and shapes.
Thousands of players have picked up the game since it was launched in 2012 – and they all share a love for animals. Maria Wallin and Andreas Bernhardsson, the directors of IdzTech, the company behind OviPets, saw an enormous potential in this community: “Our goal has always been to be able to give some real life help to animal species in need all across our planet. We want to make it easy for people to help, and what easier way then through playing a game that you like?”, Maria says.
Teaming up with the Snow Leopard Trust, OviPets launched a Charity Run, a special in-game feature where players were invited to turn a “Catus” a standard virtual feline species in the game, into a snow leopard – adding the black and white fur, larger paws and characteristic long tail of the “Ghost of the Mountain”, among other traits. The profit from the in-game credits players had to purchase in order to be able breed their own snow leopards would be donated to snow leopard conservation.
For non-gamers, most of this probably sounds pretty abstract; like a fantasy even. And we’ll admit it: When OviPets contacted us and offered to team up tor raise funds for the cats, our expectations were modest. Then again, even Maria Wallin herself didn’t dare to think of such an outcome. “This was our very first charity run”, says Maria Wallin, “and we couldn’t have dreamed about a more positive response from our players!” More than 200 players earned a special in-game badge of honor for their contributions, and many others helped.
While OviPets may be set in a virtual world, the result of the players’ passion is very real: In two weeks, the OviPets community raised a total of $10,234.67 for snow leopard conservation!