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Snow doesn’t stop snow leopard research

Dear blog readers, thanks for a great year. Here is an end-of-the-year update about our long-term  snow leopard study in the South Gobi, Mongolia.

November marked one of the coldest months in South Gobi with mercury dipping to abysmal limits. Field work became increasingly difficult and our camp remained under thick cover of snow. Despite that, our lead researcher, Orjan, witnessed one of the most remarkable behaviour of snow leopards ever observed in the wild: a female with her two sub-adult cubs remained close to the site where Orjan recaptured the male snow leopard Shonkhor. It is likely that this female is Agnes, one of the known females from the area who has been photographed earlier with her two cub  in close proximity to Shonkhor. How is Shonkhor related to her? We don’t yet know and won’t until we get to analyse and compare their DNAs. However, legal restrictions still make it impossible for us to export blood and hair of endangered species out of Mongolia.

Orjan and another visiting researcher, Elin, fell ill making everybody wonder if they picked up some infection from the wild. Not only from the cats, but it is also possible that they may have contracted some infection from one of the carcasses that they were investigating over the past several weeks (they were trying to characterize snow leopard hunting sites). This forced them to close the camp early while we were on standby mode to evacuate them in case their health deteriorated. However none of that happened and both have safely returned to their homes in Sweden and given their blood samples for disease analyses. This incident highlights the risks involved in handling wild animals and the need to be extremely careful.

If we raise the funding, we hope to investigate a study of diseases and infections among wild and domestic animals living in South Gobi since people, livestock and wildlife do interface, especially at waterholes and pastures. Given the vulnerability of the ecosystem, and snow leopard reliance on a single dominant prey species (ibex), it is important to study the prevalence of wildlife diseases in South Gobi.

The male snow leopard Aztai–the most veteran member of our study–was seemingly restricted to the core of his home range in November while Shonkhor, another younger male, patrolled the western border. Whether Aztai is being pressed within his home range from the west or if Shonkhor is taking the benefit of his restricted movements are two possibilities. Orjan did mention that Shonkhor is beginning to look like an adult grown up male, although he still lacks scars on his face indicating that he has not had many battles with other males yet.

Apparently Tsagaan’s recollaring has proven really beneficial to the study. His home range overlaps with that of Khasha, Tenger and Zara (three females) and his recent locations show him visiting all of them more than once within a month’s time. In a first of its kind, four collared snow leopards came within 500 m of each other on the 7th of November. This happened in the core of Khasha’s currently known home range. While Tenger and Zaraa left almost immediately, they were followed closely and revisited by Tsagaan within a few days time all the way up to the easternmost limit of their home ranges.

One of the mysteries last time was that of the cluster on top of a hill we dubbed ‘Mount Brad’ where Khasha and Tsagaan remained really close to each other for a while. Orjan and Elin managed to visit that cluster and found a carcass of a male ibex in one of the highest saddles. It was indeed a meal that both of them had shared, though we are yet to understand why is Khasha using such a small area. Her 40 sq km something home range is one of the smallest that we know of female snow leopards and time will tell if she has cubs, is mating, or is satisfied with the small home range in what we may call as one of the best snow leopard habitats given its ruggedness and the ibex encounters.

One of field researchers, Sumbe, is out in the field and will be installing about 25 camera traps at strategic locations so that we get to know more about snow leopard behaviour and associations in the next three to four months.

 

Nadia, a Mongolian graduate student, is back in the field with an objective to collect data for her Masters’ dissertation in a course that she is pursuing at the Wildlife Institute of India. She is hoping to compare people’s attitudes towards predagtors in presence and absence of community based conservation programs. She will build up on the data that she collected for understanding the social, cultural and economic factors behind wolf trapping in South Gobi, and her study will be of great value in evaluating the effect of our programs.

 

So in the next few months we will keep a close eye on the cats remotely while Orjan recuperates at home and we’ll be crunching a lot of data collected during the year. It will be exciting to see how the snow leopard population in our study area has changed, if at all, over the past two years using mathematical models of camera trap data. Elin will analyze the movement pattern of snow leopards around hunting sites and attempt to link it with the size and species of the preyed animal. We also hope to get a better understanding of hunting sites as Orjan runs a preliminary analysis on the data collected from several kill sites.

Look forward to some great snow leopard reports next year!

 

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