Snow Leopard Ecology
Understanding snow leopard ecology is a key building block for successful conservation programs. In order to protect the snow leopards, we must first identify the resources they use within the landscape and how they interact with each other and other wildlife.
The Snow Leopard Trust conducts groundbreaking ecological research in five countries across Central Asia. In Mongolia, we created a Long-Term Ecological Study (LTES) that is focused on growing our knowledge of snow leopard behavior and patterns of land use. Through this study, we have been able to continuously monitor wild snow leopards as they hunt, interact with each other, and move around their home range.
Using GPS and research camera data collected in our long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia, our researchers have found our that each individual male snow leopard uses an average area of 200 km2. Females have average home ranges of 130 km2.
There is very little overlap between individual cats of the same sex.
The cats in our study are mostly active at night, and typically hunt a large animal such as ibex or argali every 8-10 days.
In this study, we’ve been able to observe mothers and cubs, helping us establish educated estimates of snow leopard birth rates and dispersal patterns. Through this ecological research we hope to one day answers questions like:
- Who is the dominant male in a specific area?
- How do neighboring individuals, both male and female, interact?
Because snow leopards are the top carnivore of their ecosystem, supporting a healthy population of prey species is vital to our conservation efforts. To better understand the snow leopard’s prey base, we use two important techniques.
Ecological surveys to determine population sizes
Just like the snow leopard, the animals they hunt are constantly on the move. This makes it difficult to accurately estimate the number of individual animals in a particular area. Our research team worked internationally to overcome this challenge, and standardized a new field technique called the Double Observer Survey. This method accounts for the snow leopard’s rough mountain terrain. With this, we created the first estimates for snow leopard prey populations.
Research to understand the snow leopard’s diet
Researchers also evaluate snow leopard kills and fecal samples to gain an understanding of the cat’s diet. Analyzing the movement patterns of snow leopards wearing GPS collars, our teams can track when and where a cat has killed a prey animal. By visiting the site once the snow leopard has moved on, they can determine species, age, and other important information about the prey.
This research has yielded fascinating insights into the predation patterns of the snow leopard population of Mongolia’s Tost mountains:
Another method to understand the snow leopard’s prey is by analyzing the genetic material found in snow leopard scat.
Prey studies based on GPS tracking have only been done in Mongolia so far, while genetical analysis of scats is done in all 5 countries where the Snow Leopard Trust works. As a result of these studies, we now know that the key prey species are ibex, markhor, blue sheep and argali. Snow leopards depend on these species as a primary food source, but they have been known to hunt smaller animals like marmots, hares, and large birds.
This knowledge helps us focus our efforts on protecting the prey species snow leopards rely on the most. Our ecological surveys have shown that one of the biggest threats to snow leopard prey is competition for food from domestic herbivores such as sheep, goats, cattle and yaks. Herding communities living in snow leopard habitat areas graze their herds on the same plant material that wild animals eat. As these domestic herds continue to grow, wild ibex, markhor, blue sheep and argali populations continue to dwindle.
Additionally, these wild prey animals are poached for meat and sport hunting, decreasing population sizes even further. In order to protect these animals, the Snow Leopard Trust is working to create conservation programs that address the issues of over-grazing and poaching.
Diseases can have important ecological, social, and economic impact on people, livestock and wildlife. Experts have long recognized that environmental factors can impact human health, and vice versa. Based on this insight, they’ve formulated the one-health framework, which aims to “attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment”, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Between April and July of 2011, we found four dead snow leopards in the vicinity of our research base camp in Tost, Mongolia. They died from unknown causes, possibly from disease. Since there is no established baseline of endemic disease in the population, there is no way to know whether this occurrence was a natural part of snow leopard ecology or due to an emergent disease, and a potential threat to the future of the population.
To investigate this complex system in snow leopard habitat, we have made disease research one of our top priority areas, and we have initiated a holistic study following the one-health framework. We are examining diseases and their linkages in livestock, wild prey, dogs, rodents and snow leopards in southern Mongolia.
This groundbreaking research will provide science’s first glimpse into snow leopard exposure to common feline pathogens, and lay the foundation for a novel disease monitoring system.
Surveillance programs have been set up to monitor for the presence of diseases in several endangered species, most notably the critically endangered Iberian Lynx, and our ultimate goal is to do the same for snow leopards in the South Gobi.
With a baseline of what diseases are present in the snow leopards, a clearly defined protocol for surveillance can be tailored so that monitoring will avoid wasting resources and causing undue stress to the animals while identifying potential disease threats in ample time for appropriate action.