The Snow Leopard Trust’s current research camera study of snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan has yielded a pleasant surprise: The first ever pictures of wild Pallas’ cats in Kyrgyzstan!
Kuban Jumabai Uulu, the Trust’s Kyrgyzstan country director, discovered the photos of the small wild feline while analyzing the data from one of the research cameras he had deployed in Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve. “These are the first images of wild Pallas’ cats I’ve seen from Kyrgyzstan”, he says. “We were looking for snow leopards, but this is just as exciting!”
The Pallas’ cat, also known as manul, is a small wild cat with a broad but patchy distribution in the grasslands and montane steppe of Central Asia. The species is negatively affected by habitat degradation, prey base decline, and hunting, and has therefore been classified as Near Threatened by IUCN since 2002.
Our Chinese field braced the bitter cold of the Tibetan Plateau to set out research cameras and was rewarded with a rare sighting of four snow leopards at once – a mother with two cubs and a male cat.
Adapted from a report PhD student Lingyun Xiao
Suojia, a township located west of Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, is a place where the wildest nature remains. People moved to this county merely 50 years ago due to an expanding population in other areas. However, the strong winds and cruel coldness of this township are not the most conducive conditions for human inhabitation, which is why we can have numerous wildlife living there, including the mysterious ‘mountain ghost’ snow leopard.
Even though spring is on its way in most places of the plateau, winter persists in Suojia as if it will never go away. Our first day was quite sunny and the low temperature didn’t bother us too much.
However, as night fell, the wind began to howl, sounding as if thousands of monsters were shouting together. We struggled to crawl out of our sleeping bags the next morning, knowing it will be a tough day out in the field.
After a whole day fighting with the wind and snow, we succeeded in setting out several camera traps and also observed a lot of animal tracks, including those of two brown bears which led to dens.
This kind of weather is hard for us, but it’s ideal for snow leopards that are looking to hunt. All day we kept our eyes busy, hoping to witness a snow leopard hunting for wild prey. We had almost given up hope when we caught a glimpse of two figures sneaking along a cliff. The big tails could undoubtedly only belong to one animal: the mountain ghost.
Slowly the pair climbed up, and just then we saw the third one! A snow leopard walked quite elegantly in front of where we were. It crossed the icy river, and didn’t even bother to give us a glance. Snow leopards are just like this: always keep their own pace, as confident as a king.
We thought it had to be a mother, since the first two who crossed, waiting for this last one to join them. They reunited on the slope, and beyond our expectation, they began to walk toward us. Only when we spotted the body of a dead yak on the other side of river bank did we realize what is attracting them. They walked very cautiously and finally stopped to wait.
We prepared to leave not wanting to interrupt the family dinner, when our Tibetan field assistant, Douxiujia, noticed all of the three leopards looked up. Suddenly, the snow leopard who we assumed to be the mother jumped up and crossed the river again.
She walked along the valley as one of the younger cats jumped up and ran after her, disappearing behind a big rock. The young cat hesitated, and just then we followed its gaze and saw a fourth snow leopard walking down the slope.
From the face and shape we guessed it was a mid-age male, the real king of the territory. The big male didn’t seem to be bothered by the presence of the other cats and just kept on moving towards yak carcass on the river bank. We never did see the female cat and her possible cub ever emerge from their original hiding post.
This is the first time in the field we observed the interaction among different snow leopards. It was interesting to see intimidations not only coming from other species, but from inside the population as well. I guess as a snow leopard, it would say, I’m just a big cat struggling for everyday life.
All photos courtesy of Shan Shui and Peking University
Working with herders, our team in Mongolia is studying how to best prevent predators like the snow leopard from attacking livestock – a key to a peaceful coexistence of cats and local communities. The first fences have already been built.
Livestock losses to predator attacks can be devastating to herder families in snow leopard habitat across Central Asia; and they remain a primary source of human-wildlife conflicts. Through interventions like our community-based livestock insurance and vaccination programs, we’ve found ways to help local herders better absorb the financial impact of livestock losses – and people’s attitudes towards the cats have improved as a consequence.
In order to foster an even stronger acceptance of snow leopards among local herders, we’re also working on preventing livestock losses from happening in the first place – by building predator-proof corrals.
Gustaf Samelius, the Trust’s Assistant Director of Science and Conservation, is in Mongolia’s South Gobi region, working with our local team and communities in Tost to figure out how to best do that. They’ve launched a pilot program, helping 10 families to build new fences around their nighttime corrals.
“Building fences seems like an obvious idea, and in many ways, it is. But we want to make sure we’re building the right type of fence at the lowest possible cost“, Gustaf says, “so we’re testing different techniques now.”
Dr. Jens Karlsson, an expert on preventing livestock losses from the Wildlife Damage Center in Sweden, joined our team in the South Gobi and shared his experiences at a kickoff meeting with local communities as well as authorities in Tost. “The herders were eager to participate in the study“, Gustaf says, “and the local governor expressed his support as well.”
Communities Make Decisions
It’s one of the principles of the Trust to always involve local communities into any decisions that need to be made as part of a community-based conservation program – and the selection of the ten families who were to participate in the pilot study was a case in point: “Our local team members, Chimgee and Sumbee, explained some of the criteria for a family to be a part of the study”, Gustaf says, “but then, the herders who were at the meeting selected the participants themselves. It was amazing to see that they even suggested some families that weren’t present themselves.”
The team spent another 5 days in Tost, building the first two fences at the camps of two herders, Daowa and Burun. “Building the fences was lots of fun”, Gustaf says. “The best part about it was hearing that Daowa and Burun were happy with the work and thought that the fences will help reducing livestock losses.”
TheSnow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation are very grateful to Dr. Jens Karlsson and the Wildlife Damage Center in Sweden for their help to make this a great study and for contributing with their extensive experience of using fences as mean of reducing livestock losses.
Guest post by Peter Thomas, founder of Animus Conservation
What is it that makes us want to conserve species, habitats and the nature all around us?
For me, as a marine biologist and wildlife enthusiast who’s worked in some truly remote places, it’s a sense of both wonder and responsibility. This planet we inhabit is perhaps one of only a handful in the universe we know that can support life, and what an incredible array of life we have too. Indeed will man ever find another? Therefore I am constantly reminded of how unique this planet and its wildlife are, and filled with a sense that we should be doing more to look after it.
There are many people around the world who share this opinion – researchers, conservationists, politicians and every day members of our communities. Many work tirelessly to help change the fate of wild habitats and species to ensure their survival for the future.
However, one thing that I have always found perplexing is the media’s (and thereby often the public’s) focus on the negative issues regarding wildlife conservation and protection of biodiversity. The old adage there’s no news like bad news springs to mind. Surely we would be better served promoting the success stories as well?
This is why in October last year I founded Animus Conservation, a voluntary organisation that promotes conservation success stories for partner wildlife non-government organisations (NGOs) and charities.
I’m generally a glass half full kind of guy and try to see the brighter side of things, but if we don’t promote and share successes, how can we inspire further change, determine the best approaches, or prove to the public and businesses that wildlife conservation and natural resource management are a worthwhile investment?
This is the underlying approach behind Animus Conservation.
Now, after half a year, Animus Conservation is proud to have almost 20 partner NGOs and charities and a good social media presence. Partners include WWF, WildAid, Coral Reef Alliance, Manta Trust, Sumatran Tiger Trust, Blue Ventures (our first supporter) and now an exciting new partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust. It was immediately apparent that all our partners felt that their successes were under-represented and we hope that we are helping to change that. Animus Conservation effectively provides a central repository of conservation success stories for people to access.
We’ve shared stories about reduction of shark finning, development of marine protected areas, wildlife seizures, community education visits, animal rehabilitations, pangolins, tigers, butterflies, gorillas, national parks, re-planting of forests and mangrove, tracking of polar bears, rhinos, elephants, civets and many, many more. We look forward to even more successes over the coming months and sharing updates for the fantastic work done by the Snow Leopard Trust!
We hope 2014 is a good year for wildlife, as we look to continue expanding and sharing conservation successes. After all, it’s often only at the precipice that people find the will to change.
Peter Thomas (Founder – Animus Conservation)
Working with communities to conserve wildlife is as impactful as it is rewarding. Gaining people’s trust is no easy task though, as our China researcher Xiao Lingyun writes.
By Xiao Lingyun, PhD student at Peking University
“We’ve been waiting several days for the express delivery to send my camera traps and batteries to Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province. Just at the time I almost lost my temper, they arrived and we could finally leave the city. The smog in Beijing has lasted for weeks and I’m happy to have the choice to escape to the field.
Sanjiangyuan Area is one of the most important areas for snow leopard conservation. Although the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve covers a large portion of the area, local herders still live inside the Reserve.
Is there a way that local people and wildlife can coexist? That’s the question we are seeking an answer for, by studying eight different sites within the Sanjiangyuan Area.
From previous inspiration of Yunta village, research cameras set up by the local herders are quite successful due to their local knowledge. This time, I tried to involve the local community into the research.
It’s a decision partly out of frustration. Last December we set out camera traps at the eight sites. However, in the first village I found several of them had been taken by the villagers. Even though last time we tried our best to ask them don’t do this. It’s just a normal thing when you are doing research with people living around, unless you have community projects going at the same time.
Camera traps are quite mysterious for the local people. It’s understandable that they don’t want strange things showing up on their own rangelands. But to involve them into the whole thing can make a real difference.
By teaching them how a camera trap works and asking their help to set out and take care of the camera traps, we showed our trust and respect upon them. It’s also interesting for them to investigate the snow leopards living in their village. Hopefully this will turn into a win-win situation.
To investigate the relationship between livestock and wildlife, livestock number is crucial data. However, it’s always a sensitive topic to discuss here.
Lots of grassland restoration policies since 2005 are heading towards reducing livestock number. Villages get lots of compensation on it without really reducing the livestock number. The numbers that are communicated to the government shrink, which makes the governmental statistics unreliable. Resistance and suspicion will show when we ask the villagers directly.
So to get the real number we have to build a trusting relationship with the villages, which is not always easy. Every day my assistant and I are thinking of different ideas to show our harmlessness and our sincerity to help. How much we wish that we can simply have a “good man” label on our head!
Through all our effort things are turning to the bright side. We have built collaboration on camera trap setting with three villages. We promised to help one village on garbage disposal. We also planned to help buying electronic fences to alleviate human-brown bear conflict in another village. Relationship is building, one step by one step.
By chatting and interviewing we gained valuable information about the herders’ livelihood. Each village has its own story, which will be too long to tell here. Only by understanding each of them, our research can give an answer a little closer to reality.”
Photos courtesy of Shan Shui Conservation Center
Xiao Lingyun is a PhD student from Peking University (PKU) and has been working with our China Team since 2011. She is investigating the impacts of snow leopard on blue sheep, and will be the second female PhD on snow leopard biology in China in two years. Lingyun has worked in the field since early March, and will work into late May.