Snow leopards and wolves share some of their food resources. In Kyrgyzstan’s Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve, for now, there seems to be enough prey for both of these carnivores, but outside of the reserve, their common taste in wild ungulates could lead to competition.
Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains are a barren, dry and cold habitat. The diversity and abundance of wild ungulate species is generally low – and with snow leopards and wolves both roaming these mountains and hunting for prey, there is a high potential for conflicts between these two predators. Over the last years, an international research team led by the Snow Leopard Trust’s Kyrgyzstan program director Kubanychbek (Kuban) Jumabay-Uulu has looked into the summer diet of Sarychat-Ertash’s snow leopards and wolves to find out if these conflicts exist and how the carnivores appear to be dealing with them.
Kuban Jumabay-Uulu and his co-authors have just published the results of their work in the scientific publication Oryx[i]; producing the first snow leopard paper in an international peer-reviewed journal with a Kyrgyz lead author. For their study, the researchers collected and analyzed snow leopard and wolf scat samples from all over the Reserve, looking for clues to the diet regimen of these two similarly-sized predators.
As it turns out, snow leopards and wolves share a taste for argali – and neither of these carnivores is very adventurous when it comes to making meal choices.
Given the different hunting styles snow leopards and wolves use – the solitary cats being known to stalk their prey in steep, broken territory, while their canine competitors hunt in packs in the open terrain – the scientists expected to find relatively big differences in their diet. Snow leopards were expected to lean more heavily on ibex, commonly found in the same rugged habitat the cats prefer – and where wolves rarely venture. Accordingly, argali, a wild sheep mostly dwelling in open ground, was the expected staple of the wolves’ diet.
Only the second expectation turned out to be correct: “Our analysis showed that more than 60% of the wolves’ diet consisted of argali. For snow leopards, however, the results were a bit more surprising. While ibex were indeed a part of their diet at roughly 30%, their most important food source was the argali as well, making up 50% of their total intake”, Kuban Jumabay-Uulu says. Both species completed their somewhat limited diet with marmots (available in summer only!) and a few other rodents, and, in the case of snow leopards, shrubs.
Evidently, the overlap in prey selection between snow leopards and wolves is fairly large, perhaps bigger than expected. What could be the reasons? And how does this bode for the continued coexistence of wolves and snow leopards in Sarychat-Ertash?
There are two principal scenarios:
One possible interpretation of the data would be that there is indeed a competition going on between wolves and snow leopards, and that this competition is caused by a relatively low abundance of ibex. Given that ibex occupy the same rugged habitat as snow leopards, they would appear to be the cats’ most logical prey species – and yet, they make up only 30% of their diet.
A more plausible interpretation is that although there is high overlap in diet, there’s enough argali around for both species. Ever since Sarychat-Ertash became a State Nature Reserve, livestock grazing and hunting within the reserve’s borders have been largely stopped. Wild ungulate populations increased as a result, and it is possible that together, the ibex and argali populations are large enough to support both wolves and snow leopards in the area. The fact that there were few signs of either predator having to rely on the relatively abundant smaller prey species like marmots, hare or rodents, supports this thesis.
More research will be needed to determine whether snow leopards and wolves are competing for food right now. What appears to be clear, however, is that the pressure on both predators and prey is mounting. Ongoing trophy hunting outside the Reserve’s borders could limit ibex and argali populations, negatively affecting snow leopards and wolves. In addition, increasing livestock numbers in communities near the Reserve could lead to a new set of threats, including overgrazing, transfer of disease to wild ungulates and livestock predation and retaliation.
Clearly, Kuban Jumabay-Uulu and his colleagues have their work cut out for them in Kyrgyzstan, both in terms of research and conservation. In partnership with Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, Kuban and the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation team are currently developing a comprehensive conservation strategy for Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopards.
It’s encouraging that the Kyrgyz government is leading the way on the political front, hosting the first ever Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum in the country’s capital, Bishkek, this fall. Kuban, who has played an important role in making this event in his home country happen, is excited about the potential of the Forum: “A joint declaration on snow leopard conservation signed by the heads of state of all 12 range countries would be a strong and crucial sign of hope for the snow leopards of Sarychat-Ertash and beyond”, he says.