Monitoring snow leopard populations is a key part of any conservation efforts. It provides vital information on the status and population trends of endangered species, and can help identify emerging threats and evaluate the effectiveness of conservation actions.
Due to the snow leopard’s elusive nature, vast and often inaccessible range, and low densities, there are relatively few populations that are regularly being monitored. One of the few exceptions is the snow leopard population of Mongolia’s Tost Mountains, the site of our ongoing long-term snow leopard study. Here, our researchers have been able to determine abundance, reproduction and survival rates by analyzing more than 4 years’ worth of data from research cameras, GPS tracking collars, and occupancy surveys.
They found that the snow leopard population in Tost had remained relatively stable over those four years (2009 – 2013), with 10 – 14 adult cats using the area. This was an indication that the rate of immigration of new cats into the area, along with births, continues to offset the rates of mortality and snow leopard emigration out of the study site.
However, in that same time period, the adult sex ratio appears to have changed considerably in favor of females.
This has raised many questions. First of all, what is causing this shift? Is it normal or natural? Can this population survive with fewer males than females? Where do all the males go—and will they come back?
For now, these questions remain unanswered, but there are some clues from our data. It could be that males just don’t live as long as females due to high rates of competition and fighting. Or, like males of other big carnivore species, they could be naturally more inclined to move and wander than females.
It could also be the case that males are more likely to attack livestock, making them more of a target for retribution killing by herders. There could be threats facing males in particular, or wandering males could need greater protection of connected habitats.
There remains an urgent need to study and monitor these snow leopards closely—in Tost and elsewhere. We’re continuing to monitor the population of Tost, and have expanded the effort to include several nearby mountain ranges.
At the same time, similar monitoring efforts are underway in key snow leopard habitats of India, China, Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan – both by our own research teams and by partners.
We’re still a long way from establishing a range-wide, systematic snow leopard population monitoring, so while the population in Tost may have been stable, there’s currently no way of telling how other populations are doing.
Photo by photo, our researchers are putting pieces of the puzzle together though – a key step toward determining the cat’s conservation status and priorities.