Citizen Scientists Monitor Snow Leopards in China

Snow leopards are notoriously difficult to monitor, in part because they reside in remote areas with unfriendly terrain. But they aren’t the only ones who live there.

ranaThis post was written by Rana Bayrakçısmith, Snow Leopard Program Manager with Panthera. It originally appeared in Panthera’s Field Notes Blog

Our Chinese partner Shan Shui, along with Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust, is recruiting and training local people in the remote areas of the Tibetan Plateau to become “citizen scientists,” who can monitor snow leopard habitats that are too isolated for our teams to reach on a monthly basis.

SHAN SHUI/PANTHERA/SLT
A camera trap photo of a snow leopard near the remote village of Namsei. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / SLT

The project, which launched in 2012, now has 82 herders in four far-flung villages maintaining 104 camera traps and conducting wild prey surveys over 2175 km² of snow leopard range. Every three months, Shan Shui staff travel to these villages to collect photos, pass out batteries, troubleshoot camera placement, and distribute small stipends to help cover expenses related to maintaining the cameras.

In between trips, we analyze the camera trap photo data to identify individual cats and the staff share results from previous visits, which helps to maintain support and enthusiasm for the project. We have also noticed that when local people are actively involved in monitoring efforts, camera traps stop disappearing.

As the program has expanded, citizen scientists from the first villages we worked with have helped to train other volunteers at new locations. The project has become a fun social event and a friendly competitive element has emerged between some communities. For example, villagers from Yunta joke that “their” snow leopards are in better condition than those disheveled, old and rumpled cats in Diqing.

For many locals, the presence of federally-protected snow leopards is a powerful incentive to protect their villages from external threats such as poaching and mining. They also involve their children in maintaining the traps, thereby passing on their skills and values to the next generation.

SHAN SHUI/PANTHERA/SLT
A pair of snow leopards resting along a ridgeline near Namsei village. Photo: Shan Shui / Panthera / SLT

Recent photos collected from our newest project site in Namsei Village include images of snow leopards and common leopards captured by the same camera trap—these two species are only rarely documented coexisting. We also collected lovely photos of two snow leopards, perhaps a mother with a nearly grown cub or a mated pair, resting along a ridgeline.

We’re looking forward to the next camera trap check!

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