Are Diseases a Potential New Threat for Wild Snow Leopards?

In the first study ever investigating disease threats to this highly vulnerable species, researchers detect exposure to infections that may pose a threat to wild snow leopards, as well as local people and their livestock.

The results of the study, published in Infection Ecology & Epidemiology, detected antibodies in the blood of wild cats to important pathogens that can also infect humans and other species.

Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are a threatened and highly vulnerable species of the mountainous ranges of Central Asia. There may now be as few as 4,000 of these cats in the wild, and their numbers continue to decline. They face many threats, including poaching, habitat loss, the impact of climate change and conflict with herders. Emerging infectious diseases can particularly impact on species where populations are already depleted, and genetic diversity may be low. However, information is currently lacking about whether wild snow leopards are also under threat from disease.

Dr. Carol Esson (center) is examining a snow leopard captured and immobilized for collaring in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust

Prompted by the discovery of four snow leopards with unexplained causes of death in the South Gobi Province of Mongolia in 2011, an international team of researchers set out to investigate important zoonotic pathogens that may impact on the conservation of wild snow leopards. The researchers decided to target disease-causing pathogens that can circulate between different species, as the area is also home to many other wild animals, as well approximately 90 herder families and their goats, horses and domestic dogs.

In the Tost Mountains, snow leopards share their habitat with wild ungulate species as well as domestic livestock. Many wildlife diseases can circulate between different species. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust

Between 2008 and 2015, researchers from the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation captured and immobilized 20 snow leopards, with all but one appearing to be clinically healthy and in good physical condition.

A Snow Leopard Trust researcher takes a blood sample of wild snow leopard M13 for analysis. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust

In these cats, the authors of the disease study detected antibodies in blood samples to several important zoonotic pathogens including: Coxiella burnetii, which can cause Q fever in humans and also infects livestock; Leptospira species, which are readily transmittable to people and can lead to potentially life-threatening infections; and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite capable of infecting all warm-blooded animals and causes toxoplasmosis. Ticks collected from the snow leopards also contained many other types of potentially zoonotic bacteria.

A sight any cat owner will know all too well: ticks! These little blood suckers were collected wild snow leopards and tested for diseases in the study. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust

The study’s lead author Carol Esson, of James Cook University in Australia, said: “A disease epidemic could be devastating to wild snow leopards due to their low numbers and many other threats to their existence. Although the zoonotic pathogens identified in this study did not appear to cause illness to the snow leopards in the short term, they have caused illness in other wild cats. And so, there is now a need to establish surveillance to monitor for potential longer-term disease impacts on this vulnerable population.”

Diseases are a potential threat to wild snow leopard that is not well understood until now. This study will help change that. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust

This invaluable new knowledge will help researchers establish a reference for the health of the wild cats so that any changes can be identified if and when disease occurs. This will not only help with understanding the needs and requirements for the conservation of the endangered snow leopard but could also benefit local nomadic communities who live alongside them.

“Raising awareness in local communities about the possibility of illness in their animals and themselves could lead to improvements to herd health, boosting their productivity and income,” says Esson.

Read and download the full study here

Acknowledgments

This study was conducted by an international research team representing the following institutions:

  • James Cook University, Australia;
  • University of Melbourne, Australia;
  • National Veterinary Institute, Sweden;
  • Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden;
  • Uppsala University, Sweden;
  • University of Liège, Belgium;
  • Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Mongolia;
  • Nature Conservation Foundation, India;
  • Panthera, USA;
  • Snow Leopard Trust, USA.

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