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Snow Leopard Trust Researchers Encounter Wild Snow Leopard Cub

Agnes' cub inside the den

Agnes’ cub inside the den

Press Release – Seattle, WA, July 11, 2013

An international research team including members of the Snow Leopard Trust encounters a 2-week-old wild snow leopard cub in its den; a rare glimpse of the first days in the life of these endangered, elusive cats

Finding a wild snow leopard cub in its den is rare and exciting in its own right – the first ever such encounter took place only last year. This most recent discovery could be particularly significant though, as the international team of scientists that found this little cub believes they know not only its mother, a cat called Agnes, but possibly its father as well; a male named Ariun. Before locating the den site, the team had been tracking the cub’s mother – and its likely father – with GPS collars for several months as part of the Snow Leopard Trust’s pioneering long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert.

“Beyond conception, very little is known about the role of snow leopard fathers in the wild,” says Gustaf Samelius, a member of the team that encountered the cub. “Being able to monitor both parents of a newborn cub as it grows could yield exciting new insights, says Samelius, who is the Snow Leopard Trust’s Assistant Director of Science and a researcher with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), “So we’re eagerly awaiting the results of genetic analysis to see if Ariun is indeed the cub’s father.”

Agnes, photographed earlier this spring

Snow leopard mom Agnes

Analyzing their GPS locations, Örjan Johansson, a PhD student with the Snow Leopard Trust and SLU, had observed the two cats, Agnes and Ariun, spending several days in very close proximity earlier this spring. Snow leopards are usually solitary cats, so this type of behavior often indicates that two cats are mating. Several weeks later – as if on schedule – Agnes started to restrict her movements in a way that suggested she was preparing to give birth. “When we were fairly certain that she had given birth, we followed the VHF signals transmitted by her collar in order to find her den,” says Gustaf Samelius.

On June 21, Gustaf Samelius and his colleagues – Sumbe Tomorsukh of Mongolia and Australians Jeremy Krockenberger and Carol Esson – located the exact spot where Agnes had set up her den. Once they were certain she was a safe distance away, the scientists were able to briefly enter the den, examine and photograph her 2 week-old cub.  They took hair samples that will allow them to establish the cubs’ genetic identification and confirm sex. They also took weights and measurements, and implanted a tiny microchip – called a PIT tag – for identification, similar to those used by pet owners.

Download the full-size photo of Agnes’ cub here.

We still know very little about how snow leopards reproduce in the wild. It has taken years of sustained scientific effort for us to able to begin documenting birth rates, sex ratios, cub sizes, litter sizes or cub survival rates – all of which are critical to our work to save these endangered cats. Getting the rare opportunity to observe a cub in its den is huge for us”, says Charudutt Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation Director. “The team handled the cub very carefully and took their measurements as quickly as possible.”

A Visit From Dad?

Ariun

Ariun, captured by a research camera in 2012

Back in the study base camp, the team looked at GPS data from presumed father Ariun’s collar and compared it to the exact den location. “As we compared the data, we realized that Ariun had been within a few feet of the den a week after the cub’s birth, while Agnes, the cub’s mother, was almost a mile away”,Gustaf Sameliussays. “We can’t tell if he was actually inside the den or what he did there, but it’s a fascinating behavior to observe – especially if Ariun really does turn out to be the father”.

 

Snow Leopards – the Elusive Ghosts of the Mountain
There are as few as 3,500-7,000 snow leopards left in the wild – and due to their elusive nature, encounters are so rare that the cats are often referred to as “ghosts of the mountain”. Accordingly, our understanding of the cats’ ecology and behavior remains limited. However, an international team of scientists has been conducting a pioneering long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert since 2008, tracking the cats with GPS collars and research cameras and expanding our knowledge about this endangered species by leaps and bounds.

Press Contact:
Jennifer Snell Rullman, Assistant Director of Conservation Snow Leopard Trust; jennifer@snowleopard.org, 206-632-2421

Snow Leopard Trust:
The Snow Leopard Trust, based in Seattle, WA, is a world leader in conservation of the endangered snow leopard.
www.snowleopard.org

Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation:
Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation is the Snow Leopard Trust’s partner organization based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; partnering together on the conservation of the endangered snow leopard since 1998.

Acknowledgements:
The efforts of Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Mongolia are carried out in partnership with the Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Green Development; the Mongolia Academy of Sciences: Nordens Ark, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Our Long-Term Ecological Study (LTES) of snow leopards in Mongolia began as a collaboration between the Snow Leopard Trust, Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, and Panthera in 2008. As of January 1, 2013, Panthera no longer actively participates in LTES. We continue to work cooperatively with Panthera on analyzing data collected through 2012, including information from Agnes and Ariun’s collars.

The 2013 collaring of snow leopards in our long-term study in Mongolia is generously supported by the following major donors:

Nysether Family Foundation
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
Whitley Fund for Nature
Cat Life Foundation
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Helsinki Zoo
South Lakes Wild Animal Park

Special thanks to Örjan Johansson and Walter Pereyra for providing cat names for Agnes and Ariun.

 

 

Paul Lucchini says:

This is exciting! A great opportunity to follow the family through an incredible journey. Kudos and thank you.

July 11, 2013, 1:33 pm

Kevin Crete says:

Great work, folks!! Can’t thank you enough for what you do in the name of these ‘Ghosts of the Mountains’…keep it up! I hope someday soon to be able to volunteer in any capacity you need!

July 11, 2013, 2:59 pm

Noel Pratt says:

Dear Snow Leopard Trust, I was wondering if you could tell me what research has been done on the impact of collaring
snow leopards. I was quite startled to see the size of what are very intrusive collars. While I appreciate the signficance of research in protecting these magnificent animals and support very strongly the Trust initiatives in working with communities to encourage
protection of the leopards I do wonder about the negative impact of the collars and just how necessary continued collaring is.

Regards

Noel Pratt

July 11, 2013, 8:07 pm

matthias says:

Dear Noel, thank you very much for your comment. We are constantly testing the GPS collars we’re using to make sure they work effectively and impact the cats as little as possible – and manufacturers are doing everything they can to constantly reduce weight and bulk. Before being deployed into the field, the collars we use (and new models on the market) get tested on captive snow leopards that have been sedated for annual exams as well as in the terrain, on their own (by people driving around with them etc.) This helps us observe how the cats react to the collars.

After a few initial attempts to get rid of the collar, neither zoo cats nor wild cats that we have observed showed any further signs of being negatively impacted by the collars. Cats in our study have not shown any signs of being impeded in their ability to hunt, and, as we’ve seen with Agnes and potentially Ariun, they have also successfully mated despite wearing the collars.

That said, we are constantly evaluating the need for continued collaring. Snow leopard collaring has been going on for less than a decade, with less than 50 animals ever collared worldwide. compared to other species, where hundreds or even thousands of individuals have been tracked, it’s a very new field. At this point, we still don’t know enough about snow leopard behavior and needs to effectively protect them against all the complex threats they face, so our scientists have concluded that more collaring is indeed still necessary. For instance, it was only thanks to these GPS collars that we found out how important the flatlands between mountain ranges are for the cats. We’ve observed them disperse from one range into another across areas of land we had previously thought to be less important habitats. This discovery has enabled us to lobby with authorities in Mongolia to include these zones in the local protected area around our study area – and will inform future decisions on similar protected areas.

July 12, 2013, 10:06 am

Sibylle Noras says:

A very exciting event and a world first in studying a young snow leopard family in the wild. You and your research colleagues will be able to learn totally new knowledge on family dynamics and behavior. All this scientific information will help to protect the cats long term. Mongolian authorities are to be congratulated for their role in this work.
Indeed a wonderful event. Good luck!.

July 15, 2013, 1:00 am

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