Perhaps Dagina was destined to be a bit of a trailblazer.
She was born on the very edge of Mongolia’s Tost Tosonbumba Mountains, in an area so barren and desolate even by the Gobi’s standards that we call it the “Badlands”.
Out here, the snow leopard’s preferred prey is hard to come by, and there are few of the steep, rugged cliffs these cats like to hide in. It’s a habitat we would not have considered suitable for a snow leopard – but Dagina has proven us wrong. And she has found innovative ways to survive in these harsh conditions.
“This summer, we visited two locations where Dagina had taken down a prey animal on the very edge of the mountains”, recalls Gustaf Samelius, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Assistant Director of Science. “We expected to find carcasses of ibex or argali. But what we found surprised us: Dagina had killed and eaten two black-tailed gazelles. As far as we know, this is the first time a snow leopard has been documented to have hunted this ungulate species. Black-tailed gazelles mostly live in the steppe, and rarely venture into the mountains.”
It’s yet another new scientific finding we owe to Dagina – perhaps the world’s best-studied wild snow leopard.
We first encountered her in 2009, when she was a two-month old cub. She was following her mother, Agnes, as they passed in front of one of our camera traps stationed in the Tost Mountains.
We would encounter Dagina on camera trap photos multiple times over the years, and in 2012 equipped her with a GPS collar for the first time to track her movements more precisely. During this time, she raised her first cub, which our team happened upon during a field visit.
Dagina’s first GPS collar fell off after around 18 months, and she disappeared into the shadows for a while. Last fall however, she emerged again, and our team managed to collar her for the second time to get further insights into her life.
“We’ve seen Dagina develop and grow from a tiny ball of fur into a young adult, and now into an older, mature cat who is raising at least her second litter of cubs. That’s unique in snow leopard research”, says field biologist Örjan Johansson.
Samelius, Johansson and their colleagues only realized Dagina was raising cubs again when they analyzed camera trap photos from the Tost Tosonbumba mountains this summer. “When we collared Dagina last fall, the cubs must have been hiding nearby, but we never saw them”, Örjan says.
From a scientific perspective, it’s like a jackpot. Usually, when researchers observe a female snow leopard with cubs, they can’t determine her exact age. But Dagina’s life has been well-documented in this unprecedented long-term study. We know her age, and we know she’s capable of breeding – she had her first cub when she was three years old.
“We didn’t know for certain at what age wild snow leopards first have cubs – and it’s still too early to generalize. But thanks to Dagina, who had her first litter at age three, at least we have a first data point”, Örjan says. “We know even less about how long a snow leopard can breed. Now, Dagina has also shown us that wild snow leopards can have cubs up to an age of at least 8 years. Insights like this could be critical for our understanding of the cat’s conservation status and future.”
Dagina will wear her current GPS collar for approximately 18 months, until the early summer of 2019.