Through a twist of timing, we’re currently down to only one cat, Devekh, wearing an active GPS collar as part of our ongoing, long-term efforts to track and better understand snow leopards in the South Gobi. Senior Regional Ecologist Koustubh Sharma explains what’s behind this development, and how we’re going to continue to monitor these cats.
By Koustubh Sharma
We’ve been monitoring a total of 19 snow leopards with GPS collars in the past five years
This effort has allowed us to collect over 25,000 locations, helping us understand more about these endangered cats
Some of our GPS collars currently worn by snow leopards in the South Gobi have stopped sending data earlier than planned
Due to this development, only one cat, Devekh, remains “on the air”
All collars should still drop off as scheduled
Our tracking efforts will continue with remote-sensor cameras and new GPS collars to be deployed in 2014
Tracking snow leopards is far from a routine matter; and yet, it’s an essential part of figuring out how to best protect these endangered cats. They’re famously elusive, and their mountain homelands aren’t exactly ideal for humans to move around in – that’s why we rely on GPS collars and remote-sensor cameras to monitor the comings and goings of the South Gobi’s snow leopards. While the cameras continue to yield valuable – and stunning – photos, we’re currently left with only one cat, Devekh, wearing an active GPS collar.
Since we collared our first snow leopard in the South Gobi in 2008, we’ve collected more than 25,000 locations from a total of 19 snow leopards, including 10 males and 9 females; representing a mountainous landscape of nearly 1700 sq km. No small feat to be achieved in a span of 5 years. In fact, these numbers set the record of the largest single effort of collaring and monitoring snow leopards in the world till date.
The long-term ecological study of snow leopards is the first ever research initiative of its kind. The collars we’re using to track the cats are the most sophisticated that have ever been used on snow leopards. They are fitted with GPS receivers to determine the cats’ location and altitude, but they also record temperature and activity; transmitting the data via satellite phone transmitters, and also storing it on-board in a memory chip. Their batteries can last for up to 2 years, at which point the collars are programmed to drop off the cat. Thanks to a VHF radio transmitter built into the collars with additional batteries, they continue to emit a signal though – so our team can track and find them once they’ve dropped off.
One Cat On The Air
The recent set of collars we deployed was calibrated to last longer, up to two years, which would have sustained them at least until the summer of 2014. Accordingly, our team had programmed the collars to drop-off 24 months after deployment.
But, as they are sometimes wont to do when you conduct pioneering scientific research, things didn’t go entirely as planned: All but one of the collars installed on cats in the summer of 2012 seem to have run out of battery a few months earlier than expected. Since the drop-off mechanism and VHF transmitter are fed by separate batteries, the collars should still drop off as scheduled and should be found later on; but we’re not receiving any more real-time location data from them.
As our most recent attempt to collar more snow leopards in South Gobi resulted in no new captures, we are currently left with only one cat, Devekh, wearing an active collar that is successfully sending location data via the satellite phone.
While we won’t be getting as much location and interaction data as we’d hoped for in the next few months, our research camera trapping effort continues incessantly, making sure that we continue tracking the known and unknown snow leopards of the South Gobi.
We have recently started expanding our study of snow leopards in the area beyond the Tost-Tosonbumba Mountains and have conducted camera trapping surveys in the Gurvan Saikhan Strictly Protected Area to the north and the Noyon Mountains to the east.
The first five years of tracking the cats have yielded some incredible insights into the vigorous population dynamics of snow leopards. In an upcoming publication, we’ll be describing some of these insights, such as shifts in the male to female ratio, and the survival and temporary migration rates. However, while our long-term study has allowed us to observe these dynamics, we’re still only scratching the surface when it comes to truly understanding what’s causing them and how they’re influencing the snow leopards’ chances for survival. We’re determined to continue following the cats even if there is a temporary gap in the data pouring in from the collars – because we can only protect them effectively if we truly understand them.