Press release, Snow Leopard Trust / Panthera / Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia
Seattle – A new scientific report has confirmed that nearly 40% of all protected areas across the snow leopard’s range are too small to support even one breeding pair of these endangered cats.
Published by scientists from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Snow Leopard Trust, Panthera and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Biological Conservation, the study has shown that less than 15%, and likely as few as 3-4%, of all protected areas in snow leopard habitat are large enough to host a small population of 15 breeding females. Perhaps even more telling, across 170 protected areas in Asia, only eight are estimated to maintain the space required to support 50 or more breeding females.
The findings underscore the importance of community-based, conflict mitigation-focused conservation approaches extending beyond protected areas.
Analyzing satellite based GPS-tracking data from an unprecedented sixteen snow leopards collared in the first ever, long-term comprehensive study of the species in Mongolia’s South Gobi, researchers determined that the average home range from the study area is 220 km2 (77 sq. miles) for males and 130 km2 for females (46 sq. miles). Putting these numbers in perspective, a male snow leopard’s home range is comparable to 3.5 times the size of Manhattan.
To frame these findings in the context of conservation actions, the research team compared average snow leopard home ranges to all 170 official state-sanctioned Protected Areas within the cat’s habitat.
“Our results show that snow leopards have a substantially larger spatial need than previously thought,” said Örjan Johansson, the study’s lead scientist. “These home ranges are between 6 and 44 times larger than what earlier studies had reported. The largest home range we’ve seen was more than 1,000 km2.”
The study also found very little overlap in home ranges of adult cats of the same sex, suggesting that snow leopards are largely territorial.
These findings are in contrast to previous studies indicating vastly smaller home ranges and greater overlap between individuals. Prior studies were conducted using older, less accurate scientific research methods, including ground-based, hand held VHF tracking.
“Forty percent of these Protected Areas are smaller than an average male home range – so they’re too small to host even one breeding pair of snow leopards,” Örjan Johansson stated. “This means that any cats living in these areas will also regularly use surrounding areas that are unprotected. We can’t simply assume they’re safe and sound just because their habitat falls within a Protected Area.”
“One breeding pair alone doesn’t help much, and even a population with 15 breeding females might still be too small for long-term survival. We really need large, secure populations of 50 or more breeding females for this cat to survive. The Protected Area system, while important, cannot provide enough connected habitats to allow for this. Even under the most generous model of how many cats can fit into an area, there are only eight existing Protected Areas that could fit 50 or more breeding females right now,” Johansson added.
“Protected Areas serve an important role as core habitats for snow leopards and their prey, but this study shows that we need to focus our attention on protecting larger landscapes – and that means working with the local communities who live alongside these cats”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director.
Community-based conservation over large landscapes has been a cornerstone of the efforts by the Snow Leopard Trust, Panthera and the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation to protect this cat. This involves partnering with local communities to mitigate conflict over livestock and foster coexistence, and working with governments to limit the negative impacts of development projects such as mining, and other human influences on wild habitats.
Snow Leopard Trust
Snow leopards are one of the most endangered big cats in the world. Founded in 1981, the Snow Leopard Trust is the largest and oldest organization devoted to protecting the endangered snow leopard. The Snow Leopard Trust has been active in Mongolia for over a decade conducting grassroots conservation, education and research.
Panthera, founded in 2006, is devoted exclusively to preserving wild cats and their critical role in the world’s ecosystems. Panthera’s team of leading biologists, law enforcement experts and wild cat advocates develop innovative strategies based on the best available science to protect cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards and tigers and their vast landscapes. In 50 countries around the world, Panthera works with a wide variety of stakeholders to reduce or eliminate the most pressing threats to wild cats—securing their future, and ours.
Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation
Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation is the Snow Leopard Trust’s partner organization based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; working together on the conservation of the endangered snow leopard since 1998.
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Örjan Johansson is a PhD student at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sveriges landbruksuniversitet SLU). SLU develops the understanding and sustainable use and management of biological natural resources. This is achieved by research, education and environmental monitoring and assessment, in collaboration with the surrounding community.
This study is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend Sumbee Tomorsukh, who had a key role in the field work and data analysis that led to these results. He left us in 2015.
This work is a result of the ongoing long-term ecological study on snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi province that’s been conducted by the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences since 2008. The conservation organization Panthera helped launch the study and was a partner until 2012.
We are thankful to the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences for partnering with us in this research endeavor.
Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by the Whitley Fund for Nature, has helped tremendously with this work.
We are equally thankful to the Woodland Park Zoo, Cat Life Foundation, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Kolmarden Zoo, Nysether Family Foundation, Twycross Zoo and all other donors and supporters.
Special thanks go to all staff and volunteers who aided in the work.