Starting in 2014, the Snow Leopard Trust will partner with NCF India and the Himashal Pradesh Forest Department on a groundbreaking long-term snow leopard study in the Indian Himalayas.
The federal government of India has recently approved support for India’s first comprehensive and long-term radio-collaring project of snow leopards. This research will be taking place in the Spiti region, in the state of Himachal Pradesh; building off our long-term engagement in this landscape and advancing the many programs and studies that are already being carried out in this region.
Right now, we are in a very critical stage of preparation. While we have been working in Spiti for a long time, this is a new landscape for collaring, with lots of unknowns. Our first step is to explore to make sure that our equipment and methods fit this new setting.
We are very proud to take part in this collaborative project with Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and Indian NGO leader and longtime partner Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). This project will complement our ongoing long-term collaring study in Mongolia, and should yield exciting compare/contrast data about snow leopard and prey behavior from two very different high altitude environments.
The endangered snow leopard is the mascot of the Sochi Olympic Games. Find out more about this magnificent, mysterious cat and how you can help it survive.
- the snow leopard is endangered, with only 4000 to 6500 cats remaining in the wild
- range country governments and conservationists are joining forces to protect the snow leopard
- local communities who share the cat’s habitat are a key ally in this fight
- animal lovers across the world can help snow leopards by symbolically adopting a cat, purchasing handicrafts made by local herders, or making a gift for conservation
The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, will be all about athletic excellence in cold, snowy conditions – and no animal could better represent this idea than the snow leopard, the Olympic Games’ official mascot. Indeed, this cat would dominate many disciplines in Sochi!
With its short but powerful front limbs, and its longer, equally strong hind limbs, the snow leopard can leap up to 30 feet in the air – not even halfpipe star Shaun White and ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson will be able to match that! Its extra-long tail gives the snow leopard superb balance when jumping from rock to rock – a skill the world’s best freestyle skiers would love to have. With its giant paws, the snow leopard can walk on any type of snow without sinking in, while cross-country skiers need skis and poles – and when a snow leopard hunts a mountain goat down a steep slope, snow leopard fans and alpine skiing superstars Lindsey Vonn and Maria Riesch would have a hard time keeping up with the cat going for gold! We don’t know how a snow leopard would fare at hockey or figure skating, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it excelled, too.
An Endangered Mascot
Despite its remarkable physical prowess, the snow leopard is officially listed as an endangered species. Decades of poaching, habitat destruction and conflicts with herders who share the cat’s home range in Central Asia have reduced the global snow leopard population to a few thousand animals. Russia, the host of these Olympic Games, may only have as few as 100 wild snow leopards left, mostly in the Altay mountains – far from the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
Together with all the 11 other snow leopard range countries, the Russian government has agreed to an ambitious plan to save these endangered cats in October 2012, signing the Bishkek Declaration on the Conservation of the Snow Leopard.
The plan’s goal is to ensure the survival of the snow leopard. As a first milestone, it calls for the countries to identify and secure 20 secure 20 snow leopard landscapes across the big cat’s range by 2020, or, in shorthand— “Secure 20 by 2020“.
The Snow Leopard Trust is helping the range countries reach this ambitious – and crucial – goal by conducting pioneering research on this most elusive of the big cats; studying its behavior, interaction and needs through GPS tracking and remote sensor cameras.
Local Communities Are Key Allies
Another pillar of our conservation strategy is to work with communities who share snow leopard habitat. These people, often impoverished herders who rely on their livestock for their livelihood, can be at odds with the predator who shares their pastures. Retaliation killings by herders trying to protect their livestock have been a threat to the snow leopard for decades – but through innovative approaches, we’re turning these herders from a threat to an asset for the cats!
Livestock insurance and vaccination schemes have made it easier for herders to tolerate the occasional loss of a goat or a sheep, increasing their tolerance for snow leopards. And our handicraft program, Snow Leopard Enterprises, has even helped many of them make a living not just despite, but thanks to peacefully coexisting with the cats!
In Snow Leopard Enterprises, herders produce handmade items from the wool of their livestock. We purchase the handicrafts from them and sell them through our webshop – providing these families with a sustainable income. In return, they pledge to protect the snow leopards in their area; receiving a bonus if no cats are killed near their community at the end of each year.
Help Save Cats
These programs have changed attitudes about snow leopards significantly. You can help us bring them to even more families, and help them protect even more snow leopards.
Support Snow Leopard Enterprises by purchasing colorful baby felted booties, beautiful embroidered cotton napkins, or unique camel wool yarn in vibrant colors. Or help fund our research and conservation programs by symbolically adopting a snow leopard or by making a donation on our website. And, last but not least, help spread the word! Share this article with your friends and family, so they can learn more about the awesome cat behind the Sochi mascot too!
Through a twist of timing, we’re currently down to only one cat, Devekh, wearing an active GPS collar as part of our ongoing, long-term efforts to track and better understand snow leopards in the South Gobi. Senior Regional Ecologist Koustubh Sharma explains what’s behind this development, and how we’re going to continue to monitor these cats.
By Koustubh Sharma
We’ve been monitoring a total of 19 snow leopards with GPS collars in the past five years
This effort has allowed us to collect over 25,000 locations, helping us understand more about these endangered cats
Some of our GPS collars currently worn by snow leopards in the South Gobi have stopped sending data earlier than planned
Due to this development, only one cat, Devekh, remains “on the air”
All collars should still drop off as scheduled
Our tracking efforts will continue with remote-sensor cameras and new GPS collars to be deployed in 2014
Tracking snow leopards is far from a routine matter; and yet, it’s an essential part of figuring out how to best protect these endangered cats. They’re famously elusive, and their mountain homelands aren’t exactly ideal for humans to move around in – that’s why we rely on GPS collars and remote-sensor cameras to monitor the comings and goings of the South Gobi’s snow leopards. While the cameras continue to yield valuable – and stunning – photos, we’re currently left with only one cat, Devekh, wearing an active GPS collar.
Since we collared our first snow leopard in the South Gobi in 2008, we’ve collected more than 25,000 locations from a total of 19 snow leopards, including 10 males and 9 females; representing a mountainous landscape of nearly 1700 sq km. No small feat to be achieved in a span of 5 years. In fact, these numbers set the record of the largest single effort of collaring and monitoring snow leopards in the world till date.
The long-term ecological study of snow leopards is the first ever research initiative of its kind. The collars we’re using to track the cats are the most sophisticated that have ever been used on snow leopards. They are fitted with GPS receivers to determine the cats’ location and altitude, but they also record temperature and activity; transmitting the data via satellite phone transmitters, and also storing it on-board in a memory chip. Their batteries can last for up to 2 years, at which point the collars are programmed to drop off the cat. Thanks to a VHF radio transmitter built into the collars with additional batteries, they continue to emit a signal though – so our team can track and find them once they’ve dropped off.
One Cat On The Air
The recent set of collars we deployed was calibrated to last longer, up to two years, which would have sustained them at least until the summer of 2014. Accordingly, our team had programmed the collars to drop-off 24 months after deployment.
But, as they are sometimes wont to do when you conduct pioneering scientific research, things didn’t go entirely as planned: All but one of the collars installed on cats in the summer of 2012 seem to have run out of battery a few months earlier than expected. Since the drop-off mechanism and VHF transmitter are fed by separate batteries, the collars should still drop off as scheduled and should be found later on; but we’re not receiving any more real-time location data from them.
As our most recent attempt to collar more snow leopards in South Gobi resulted in no new captures, we are currently left with only one cat, Devekh, wearing an active collar that is successfully sending location data via the satellite phone.
While we won’t be getting as much location and interaction data as we’d hoped for in the next few months, our research camera trapping effort continues incessantly, making sure that we continue tracking the known and unknown snow leopards of the South Gobi.
We have recently started expanding our study of snow leopards in the area beyond the Tost-Tosonbumba Mountains and have conducted camera trapping surveys in the Gurvan Saikhan Strictly Protected Area to the north and the Noyon Mountains to the east.
The first five years of tracking the cats have yielded some incredible insights into the vigorous population dynamics of snow leopards. In an upcoming publication, we’ll be describing some of these insights, such as shifts in the male to female ratio, and the survival and temporary migration rates. However, while our long-term study has allowed us to observe these dynamics, we’re still only scratching the surface when it comes to truly understanding what’s causing them and how they’re influencing the snow leopards’ chances for survival. We’re determined to continue following the cats even if there is a temporary gap in the data pouring in from the collars – because we can only protect them effectively if we truly understand them.
In 2013, we’ve gotten hundreds of photos of wild snow leopards, taken in the field by remote-sensor research cameras. These pictures are crucial for our scientists, as they allow them to assess cat populations over time, as well as migrations of cats from one mountain range to the next. For most of us, they’re just stunning to look at.
Here are some of 2013′s highlights from the cat-walks of Central Asia!
This past holiday season, we had set out to raise $100,000 for snow leopard conservation – and a group of generous donors had agreed to match every gift we’d receive up to that amount. Thanks to our amazing supporters’ generosity, we reached our ambitious goal on December 31st, 2013!
Since we first launched this exciting challenge in November, more than 940 people gave a total of just over $100,000 to advance snow leopard conservation. Thanks to the match, that’s more than $200,000 that will benefit the cats throughout their range!
Here are just a few of the major projects you’ll be supporting in 2014:
- Expanding our long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia so we can explore new mountain ranges
- Initiating the first-ever large-scale research camera study in Kyrgyzstan
- Testing new methods for deterring snow leopards from entering livestock corrals
- Piloting the Snow Leopard Enterprises handicrafts program in India for the first time
In addition to working directly with over 50 communities in the top five snow leopard range countries, we will also support the governments of all 12 range countries to continue moving towards the ’20 by 2020′ goal of securing 20 snow leopard landscapes by 2020. These are big goals and we couldn’t reach them without you.
From all of us at the Snow Leopard Trust, thank you so much for making this possible – and have a great start into 2014!