Following Dagina’s Cubs

In Mongolia this spring, thanks to a GPS tracking collar, researchers were able to visit den site of Dagina, the oldest female wild snow leopard known to science. She gave birth to three cubs. Senior researcher Örjan Johansson shares with us the story of Dagina and her cubs.

In May 2019, we put out four research cameras in different locations within a few kilometers of Dagina’s den, hoping to get images of her, and of the cubs as they grow up. A priority for snow leopard conservation is an understanding of how snow leopards reproduce and raise their young.

“Dagina” is one of the world’s best-studied wild snow leopards. Our first glimpse of Dagina came in 2009, when she was a tiny little cub, trailing her mother, Agnes. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.

While the cameras do not give us detailed information, they can provide valuable insights without intruding on a snow leopard family. For example, when the cubs are large enough to start following their mother for shorter distances, she will leave the den with her cubs in tow to a new site. She will then go out hunting with her cubs left alone at a safe site close to a recent kill she has made. Next time the mother makes a kill, she moves the cubs to that site, and so on. For conservation, we are mainly interested to see when cubs start following their mothers more regularly, as that will help us decide which months that are best to conduct camera-surveys and still have a good chance to detect mothers and cubs. The cameras will help answer that question. But—most importantly—they can help us estimate how many cubs in a given litter survive up to the age when they disperse from their mothers.

After we set up the four motion-sensing research cameras, local rangers replaced memory cards as needed so that the cameras would continually take photographs of passing wildlife. Upon returning to the field in October 2019, we eagerly started searching the photos looking for Dagina and her cubs. At first, we saw quite a few photos of Dagina but always alone. Then we saw images from one camera taken in early September with Dagina and what looked like one cub. In a gloomy mood, we scrutinized the photos and looked at them again. Was there really only one cub?

Dagina is the world’s oldest reproducing wild snow leopard of a known age. At 10 years of age she is not a young cat anymore and we suspected that it could be tough for her to kill enough prey to sustain herself and three cubs. Even so, we hoped that they had survived. We were already attached to the little cubs after having had them snuggle in our laps while we tagged and weighed them.

Forever hopeful, we looked once more at the camera images of Dagina and the one cub and suddenly noticed an additional little tail at the edge of an image. With relief, we could confirm that two cubs were alive. Rather than just give up on the third cub, we continued to skim through the photos, hurriedly passing by photos of other snow leopards, wolves, foxes and various birds until we stopped at one photo: There was Dagina in the daylight, sniffing and marking a rock, with one cub jumping on her and playfully trying to bite her neck. And—behind the cub—two more!! All three had survived the five months to at least the middle of October.

Over the next 15-17 months while the cubs stay with Dagina, she will have to successfully bring down a large prey species every 4-5 days. And we are not talking about small prey! Snow leopard’s natural prey are wild sheep and goats like ibex and argali that can range from a similar size as Dagina to five times heavier. It’s a tough job raising a litter of snow leopards but Dagina has succeeded three times earlier and, at age 10 and a half, she is still going strong.

We are eager to see more photos of this amazing snow leopard family and hope to fit both Dagina and perhaps one or two of her cubs with GPS-collars in a year’s time. By then, the cubs will be big enough to wear the collars. By following the cubs as they disperse from Dagina, we will gain more knowledge of what age snow leopards disperse and how far afield they may go to find a new home.

Örjan Johansson finding a high vantage point to listen for radio signals from Dagina’s tracking collar. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust.

Acknowledgments:
Over 70 foundations, zoos and corporate partners, as well as hundreds of individual donors have made it possible for the Trust to conduct its long-term scientific study in Mongolia, and to GPS-collar snow leopards over the past decade. For a full list please visit www.snowleopard.org/decade.

6 Comments

  1. Amazing 🙂 What fantastic work you do <3 you are real life heroes!! Take care and Merry Christmas to you all, love Rose

  2. I just finished watching a BBC documentary series called “Big Cat Diaries” that followed big cats in the Masai Mara, including leopards. No snow leopards there, of course. All the way through the series, I couldn’t help but think it would be wonderful if someday somebody could film a similar “diary” (day-to-day life documentary) for snow leopards.

    The producers made it clear, however, that even spotting a (regular) leopard once in several months is considered lucky. They were only able to film leopards for the documentary because they knew a female with an easily-accessible range who wasn’t shy of people or vehicles–quite the rarity. They also had ten spotter crews working daily and a massive production budget. I get the impression that for snow leopards, we’re going to have to be content with occasional glimpses in static locations here and there for a very long time.

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