New Cats and Latest Update from Long-Term Study

In autumn 2019, Scientists from the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia equipped three wild snow leopards with GPS collars in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains. Örjan Johansson shares his stories from the field with us.

Part 1: Tracking the snow leopard

This year we trapped along a wide valley that cuts through the Tost mountain range from north to south. As the cats descend from the mountains to cross the valley, they mark their territory frequently. The valley itself is a conspicuous landmark that appear to serve as a border between snow leopard territories, which would explain why there are so many marking sites. There are no herders living in the area right now—they will move here later in winter. With no livestock trampling around, it’s possible to track the cats as they move through the valley.

Orjan and Gustaf head out for a day of trapping in the Tost mountains of the South Gobi. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation

Most often biologists track animals on snow but if you pay careful attention it’s possible to track even a light-footed cat in gravel. We found tracks of a snow leopard in the southern end of the valley as it followed the valley’s eastern side, heading north. Judging by the tracks, the cat was full of confidence. One would assume that most of the local snow leopards find it somewhat scary to walk in the valley bottom as it is far away from the rugged cliffs they perceive as safe havens. Still, this cat was sauntering along, sniffing rocks and checking out scrapes in a very relaxed way, with small detours here and there rather than moving in a ‘straight line’. After hundred meters or so, it crossed over to the western side of the valley to check some marking sites there too. Then it once again crossed the valley and visited an artificial water hole that was built by a mining company earlier this summer for their offsetting project. After a refreshing drink, the cat continued on its way northwest.

Tracking in the gravel requires careful attention and you often have to double-back and start over when you lose the tracks. The hard work is often quite rewarding though. One learns a lot about how the cats move through the landscape, and, in our case, where to build snares to maximize the chance of catching a cat. I am pretty confident that no cat will be able to repeat the travel path that we tracked without getting caught in a snare.

Sunset on the east side of the Tost valley where we looked for locations to place snares. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.
Update three weeks later

I am frustrated and have to admit defeat. We had a snow leopard who did almost the same stretch and passed by five snares without getting caught. It had put its paws within 10 centimeters of the snare trigger at least four times! I think it is the same “sauntering” cat too. It is a bit ‘sloppy’ in its gait and doesn’t place its hindfeet in the same spot (or close to) as the front paws. One can indeed learn a lot from tracking, though I have to say that at times it would be less frustrating that we didn’t know a snow leopard slipped by our traps.

F14 Photographed by camera trap in Tost. Camera trap images combined with collaring data have helped researchers monitor the snow leopard population of Tost. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.

But good news! This autumn we collared three snow leopards, for a total of six in 2019. We first caught a female that has lost her right eye. She is on the small side of adult females but seemed to be in decent condition despite it being difficult (we imagine) to hunt in the steep slopes with only one eye. We hope that she is able to bring down wild prey and that she is not dependent on livestock. Her ID is F14.

The second cat, Chingis or M14, may be familiar to some of our supporters. He was first collared about one and a half years ago in spring 2018. When we recollared him, his original collar was scheduled to fall off a few weeks later. Now we can follow him for another 18 months. We noted that he was big the last time we collared him, when we estimated he was about three years old. Chingis is even bigger now and even though he is a fair bit lighter than M15 (the huge male nicknamed “The Dude” that we recollared in April 2019), he is almost as tall and long. Chingis behaved much more confidently this time compared to spring 2018. When we arrived at the trap site he simply sat down on his haunches and gave me a good long stare down.

The third cat is a new male with ID M18, he is also big and at least four years old. We have not yet found him in our camera trap photo library, and it will be interesting to see where his territory is.

In order to compare unique spot patterns of collared cats with camera trap images, the snow leopard is brushed. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.
Part 2: Waiting for the Ibex

This year we didn’t have much success with collaring ibex. When we arrived in mid-October there was still green grass in the mountains. According to the herders here in Tost, the ibex do not need to drink water as long as there is green grass available. We weren’t sure that this was correct at first. It seemed a bit far-fetched that the ibex would get all the water they need from the short and sparse grass here, green as it may be. But it does in fact appear as if the ibex do not drink water when the grass is green. Neither do they drink water if there is even the tiniest amount of snow hidden away from the sun in a tiny crevice somewhere far into the mountains where no one should set foot.

We are not sure why the ibex are so afraid of the waterholes. The waterhole we wait at is situated in relatively gentle terrain. Ibex feel safest in steep and broken terrain but we do not want to work there to ensure that they don’t injure themselves during induction of the drugs. Still, even if the terrain is relatively flat, that can’t be the full explanation. It almost seems as if the ibex expect a predator to ambush them when they come to drink. The only plausible candidate in Tost would be a snow leopard but we have never recorded a kill from any of our collared cats at waterholes, so it seems unlikely that this happens often.

Two male ibex come down to the water hole where we hope to capture them. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.

Well, no matter why the ibex are scared of the waterholes, the result is that it complicates our lives as water is the only attractant that we have found to work on ibex. But sitting and waiting for the ibex to come to the waterholes sort of depends on the ibex actually having to come for a drink. And as we learn more about the ibex, more and more reasons for why they do not need to drink materializes. Still, we have identified two peaks in waterhole visits when the likelihood of alternative water sources is the lowest: the end of April to mid-May when the ice has thawed out and the snow has melted but the green grass hasn’t emerged yet and it rarely rains, and the end of October to mid-November when the grass has dried up and the snow hasn’t fallen yet. All good in theory, but one ill-timed snow or rainfall and the ibex will be gone from the waterhole and we can only hope that they return before its time to pack up camp.

This spring it snowed or rained every week. Because of this, not only did the ibex stay away from the waterhole during the spring trip, but so much new grass sprung up, and stayed green until halfway through the autumn trip too. Towards the end of the trip we started seeing some ibex at the water hole and got our hopes up but four days later the first snow fell and since then we haven’t seen them.

In those four days we managed to collar a huge male ibex though. This is the first male that we have darted at the waterhole and it will be very interesting to see how he moves in relation to the female ibex previously collared. He is 11 years old and about as big as an ibex male gets. Collaring ibex was the main purpose of the trip and while that didn’t work very well, we did fit 14 collars on domestic goats to monitor their movements and space use in relation to our collared ibex and snow leopards.

Now it’s back to the drawing board! We will try to figure out a way to attract ibex that both works (the ibex likes it) and is feasible in Tost. For example, a lure that we can get to Tost for a reasonable sum and that doesn’t get eaten by livestock/can be replenished automatically. In April 2020 we will head out again for another attempt.

The Research team collar 14 domestic goats to monitor their movements and space use in relation to our collared ibex and snow leopards. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.

Acknowledgements:
Over 70 foundations, zoos, and corporate partners, and hundreds of individual donors, have made it possible to run our long-term study and collar snow leopards over the past decade—for a full list please visit www.snowleopard.org/decade. The Snow Leopard Trust’s long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia is in collaboration with the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the Mongolian Ministry of Environment & Tourism, and the Mongolia Academy of Science.

One Comment

  1. THIS was just fascinating! how very difficult to categorize the ibexes need for water…such hard work I have a great deal of respect for these researchers.

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