Pioneering Research Leads to PhD

Örjan Johansson’s groundbreaking work on the snow leopard’s biology and behavior has led to novel insights into the spatial needs, predation patterns, and reproduction cycle of this elusive cat. Now, after 8 years of field work, collaring 23 individual snow leopards and spending more than 1,000 nights in the Gobi Desert, this pioneering scientist has received his PhD from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Press release. Seattle, September 22, 2017.

Despite its undeniable charisma, the snow leopard has long been one of the least studied and least understood large carnivore species in the world – perhaps due to its elusive nature, remote habitat and extreme rarity.

A snow leopard makes a rare appearance on a camera trap in Tost, Mongolia. Photo: Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust

While overall population numbers and conservation status continue to be educated guesses at best, our knowledge about individual snow leopard’s biology and behavior has increased by leaps and bounds in the past decade – in no small part thanks to the groundbreaking work of Örjan Johansson.

Örjan Johansson with two snow leopard cubs he found in their den in 2012. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust

Örjan joined the Snow Leopard Trust in 2008, mainly for his expertise in immobilizing and collaring carnivore species. His foremost task was to put GPS collars on wild snow leopards as part of a pioneering long-term study – something that had only been done a handful of times before.

Örjan Johansson (right) is the world’s foremost expert on the capture, immobilization and collaring of wild snow leopards. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust

Through these collars, researchers would receive detailed, timed location data of wild snow leopards, which would allow them to study the cat’s interactions, space use, predation patterns, and more.

In this study, Örjan Johansson has collared 23 individual snow leopards – equal to or more than all other snow leopard studies to date combined. He has developed what is widely recognized as the safest way to capture and immobilize these cats and published his findings in a scientific journal. Örjan also lead the team that discovered the first snow leopard den site in the wild. He has helped author five peer reviewed publications shedding light on snow leopard home range size, diet and predation patterns, and population size. These studies have vastly increased our knowledge of these cats, and have quickly been accepted as state of the art in the field.

GPS collars allow researchers to track snow leopard movements. Photo: Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation / Snow Leopard Trust

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with passionate and talented colleagues from various countries and institutions. But I’m particularly grateful to the team from Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia, who’ve been instrumental in this research from the first day. Without them, this work would not have been possible”, Örjan says.

The information Örjan Johansson and his colleagues have helped unveil is being used every day to improve and protect snow leopards from going extinct in the wild.

Since the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Foundation Mongolia began their long-term study, we’ve been sharing our learning with local communities and the Mongolian Government to improve snow leopard conservation efforts. In 2016, thanks to the local community’s efforts and aided by these research findings, the Mongolian Parliament declared the site of the long-term study, Tost Mountain, a federal Nature Reserve—the first state Protected Area in the country designated specifically for snow leopards.

A map of Tost Nature Reserve in Mongolia. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust

However, Örjan Johansson’s research has also shown that Protected Areas alone are not enough: in 2016, a study he authored found that 40% of the protected areas within the cat’s range are actually too small to fit one male snow leopard’s home range, and only 14% of them are large enough to fit a population of 15 or more females.

“This means that the protected areas in the snow leopard range are too small to safeguard the survival of this species on their own”, says Örjan Johansson. “In order to protect the species, we must therefore help locals to coexist with snow leopards outside the protected areas”.

Are you based in the Seattle area? This is your chance to meet this pioneering snow leopard researcher and hear his amazing field work stories! Join us on October 7th from 5 to 9pm at Woodland Park Zoo for “Catch Me If You Can”, a FUNdraising event with food and cocktails featuring special guest Örjan Johansson. Click here to RSVP 

4 Comments

  1. I want to say that i simply adore the snowleopards..The ghost of the mountain so illusive and need our help and understanding. I have seen Örjan och Swedish TV in his work with snowleopards. One of our TV host her i Sweden Anders Lundin went down to Örjan and lived with him for a while and it´was a dream come true for Anders to see a wild snowleopard and the natural habitat they live in.

    All my love to all of you and i sp happy for the work you do for this amazing big cats!
    Hugs, Susanne.

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