Research Tools

The Snow Leopard Trust uses cutting edge research tools to determine where our efforts are needed the most. The information we collect is used to improve the community-based conservation programs that protect snow leopards living in the five countries where we work.

Snow Leopard Trust field researchers conduct studies year round to gain insight about snow leopard habitat, wild prey species, and the cats themselves. Research cameras photograph wild snow leopards as they move throughout their home ranges, while GPS collars provide us the opportunity to track an individual snow leopard’s movements for an entire year. Ecological surveys are used to better understand the landscape and the role of humans and wildlife alike, and genetics research offers the chance to establish a snow leopard population’s health and diversity.

Camera Studies
One of our research cameras has raised a wild snow leopard’s curiosity. Photo: NCF India / Snow Leopard Trust

Our research cameras offer a wealth of knowledge about the location and behavior of the snow leopards we protect. These cameras take a series of photographs that we use to identify specific cats and the places they travel through. This information helps us determine where our conservation efforts will have the greatest impact.

We use the research camera technology in India, Mongolia and Pakistan, where we focus on predetermined 400 km2 areas. This standard size helps us define our study regions in order to create more accurate results that can be easily compared.

We set up multiple cameras (between 20-40) in that range, most often in the summer when snow leopards are likely to be exploring. The cameras takes a picture every half-second when a source of heat (i.e. a snow leopard, fox, goat, or human) moves in front of it, creating a sequence of photographs that can be strung together into a stop-motion clip.

A team of scientists in Pakistan is setting up a remote-sensor research camera to capture photos of the elusive 'Ghost of the Mountain'. Photo: SLF Pakistan / Snow Leopard Trust
A team of scientists in Pakistan is setting up a remote-sensor research camera to capture photos of the elusive ‘Ghost of the Mountain’. Photo: SLF Pakistan / Snow Leopard Trust

Each camera can take up to 2,500 photos, which researchers use to identify individual snow leopards based on spot patterns. Did you know each snow leopard has a completely unique coat? Their rosette pattern is just like your fingerprints!

We use this count of individual snow leopards (and sometimes their little cubs!), to determine the approximate number of cats in an area. and how a population is doing. From there we can determine if the region is important snow leopard habitat.

These cameras are a non-intrusive addition in to the snow leopard’s natural environment, and we often see snow leopards come close to investigate these new fixtures in their home. Sometimes the same snow leopard is seen on multiple cameras, giving us a unique look into their personality and behavior.

Watch many of our incredible snow leopard videos made from the images taken by these research cameras in the Photos and Videos section.

GPS Tracking
M11, or Tsetsen, the 20th wild snow leopard we’ve tracked with a GPS collar in Mongolia. Photo: SLCF / SLT

In order to protect wild snow leopards, we first need to understand where and how they live. Since snow leopard habitat is typically rocky cliffs at high altitudes, it can be a challenge to answer important questions like:

  • How much space does a snow leopard typically use?
  • Where do snow leopards hunt and find water?
  • Where are the biggest threats to snow leopards located?

In order to gain a better understanding of these cats, we began a long-term ecological study in the South Gobi region of Mongolia. This study uses GPS tracking collars to follow snow leopards as they move around the landscape.

A 3d map of GPS locations for three snow leopards we tracked in Mongolia's South Gobi. Click to enlarge. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust
A 3D map of GPS locations for four wild snow leopards we tracked in Mongolia’s South Gobi. Click to enlarge. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust

GPS is a technology that allows a device on the ground to upload a location to a database via satellite. We implant this device in a collar, along with a battery that will last an entire year, and fit it on a wild snow leopard. But finding the snow leopard can be quite tricky.

Our snow leopard collaring expert Örjan Johansson spends an entire season at the Mongolian base camp setting snares in areas he knows snow leopards to be. These snares do not hurt the cats, and once a snare is tripped, an alarm sounds that instantly alerts our researchers to investigate the site.

The collar is programmed to release a year or 18 months after it is first set, and for every 1 uplink set to the researchers, 4 locations are stored in the collar. After the collar drops, researchers locate it and download the additional information.

This groundbreaking study has offered us a rare look into the lives of 20 wild snow leopards since the study first began. We use the data from these collars to better understand snow leopard behavior and habitat needs. For instance, it has allowed us to determine the size of average snow leopard home ranges, gain insights into their interactions and migrations, and even led to the first-ever discovery of wild cubs in their dens.

Ecological Monitoring
A couple of wild ibex in Kyrgyzstan’s Sarychat Ertash reserve. These ungulates are a key snow leopard prey species. Photo: SLF / SLT

Detailed ecological surveys of the snow leopard habitat areas provide an important baseline for our conservation efforts. These surveys provide information on the political, biological and cultural factors that influence conservation efforts in the countries where we work. With these data, we can target our efforts to address the unique needs of each specific habitat area.

We regularly survey communities sharing snow leopard habitat in order to better understand their overall knowledge of snow leopard ecology and their attitudes toward conservation. Researchers do this by interviewing community members to determine the threats to snow leopards and the root causes of the human-wildlife conflicts.

It was through this process that we first discovered the low market value of a herding community’s raw wool. This insight led to the creation of Snow Leopard Enterprises, an effective conservation program that dramatically increases the wool’s value in return for the community’s pledge to protect wild snow leopards.

We also conduct detailed surveys of habitat areas to document snow leopard signs like scrapes, scat and scent markings. Called ‘occupancy surveys’, this research helps us determine if there are snow leopards in a particular area, and if so, approximately how many.

This information on occupancy is used to establish where we need to expand, how we need to grow our protections for snow leopards, and if there is any conflict in the region that will impact our efforts. We also conduct occupancy surveys in regions where we already have established efforts to determine if the conservation programs in place are truly benefiting snow leopard populations.

We also use ecological surveys to better understand the snow leopard’s wild prey and the resources they use. Herds of blue sheep, argali, ibex and other prey species are always on the move, making it difficult to get an accurate count. To eliminate this problem, Snow Leopard Trust researcher Kulbhushansigh (Kullu) Suryawanshi standardized a technique in India called the ‘Double-Observer Survey’. In this type of study, two researchers count the numbers of wild prey in a specific area at different times or from different places and compare their findings.

The late Snow Leopard Trust researcher Lkhagvasumberel (Sumbe) Tomorsukh later adapted this technique for use in Mongolia, and found that it offered far more accurate counts of prey species. This type of collaboration between scientists has a very positive impact on our conservation efforts, and we look forward to seeing more breakthroughs like this in the future.

Genetics
One of the wild snow leopards of Tost, a population we’ve been studying for many years. Photo: SLCF / SLT

Genetic research allows scientists to discover information about snow leopard populations at the most detailed level. We use this tool to help us understand the diversity of specific snow leopard populations as well as identify individual snow leopards and potentially their relationship to each other. With this information, we can better understand breeding patterns and the overall health of a snow leopard population within a particular habitat area.

If a species has a large genetic diversity, it means that individual populations are healthier and better able to show resilience in case of disease or illness. If the diversity is too low, on the other hand, the species tends to be more vulnerable.

In 2009, the Snow Leopard Trust funded the research required to crack the code of snow leopard DNA and answer the question of genetic health and diversity. Dr. Lisette Waits conducted the DNA study at the University of Idaho, and the resulting technique is now a valuable new tool that helps us determine snow leopard population sizes and their overall genetic health.

Animal scat and hairs are collected from the field, and DNA is extracted to determine which type of animal produced the sample. If it was a snow leopard, we take the next step and analyze the specific genetic profile of the individual. This can take time, but the information we collect is invaluable in understanding both the individual cat, and the population as a whole.

This remarkable breakthrough will help us fully understand the issues facing the endangered snow leopard, as well as find the solutions that will help this species thrive.