New photos taken by remote research cameras in Mongolia’s South Gobi have revealed the extensive wanderings of a snow leopard. Within a year, the cat was photographed in two different mountain ranges, separated by 40 km of steppe! The findings support the notion that habitats and populations may be more connected than previously assumed.
By Dr. Koustubh Sharma, Senior Regional Ecologist
A couple weeks ago, I was analyzing a set of research camera photos that had been taken last winter in Mongolia’s Noyon Mountains, looking for familiar patterns and scars on the otherwise stealthy, elusive snow leopard. Little did I know I was in for a major surprise!
Cataloguing and analyzing research camera photos of snow leopards is the type of work that makes you realize that all cats are indeed gray at night! Most active at dawn and dusk, snow leopards have a knack for having their picture taken in the darkness (if at all!). Sometimes they also move so fast that all we get is a furry, vaguely cat-shaped blur. All this makes it rather difficult to distinguish them as individuals.
Still, with a bit of practice, you learn to recognize individual cats by their fur patterns and other features. However, you don’t always quite trust your eyes, especially when they’re seeing something completely unexpected.
In my case, the unexpected even had a name: Khasar, the scarred warrior snow leopard!
There he was, staring right at the camera. There is no mistaking his face, which bears the scars of what must have been ferocious battles with other snow leopards.
I had seen Khasar, named after Genghis Khan’s famously scarred warrior brother, several times before. He had made appearances in photo sets from the summers of both 2013 and 2014.
Those photos, however, were from Nemegt, separated from Noyon by a good 40 kilometers of steppe.
Crossing the Steppe
On satellite photos, the snow leopard habitats of Mongolia’s South Gobi look like scattered islands; small mountain ranges rising over endless, desert-like steppe.
Nemegt and Noyon, the two mountainous “islands” where Khasar has shown up, are separated by about 40 kilometers of flat, empty land; bisected by a dirt road that leads from the provincial capital, Dalanzadgad, to the town of Gurvantes – a road I have used many times to get from the local airport the our study site in nearby Tost Mountains.
Despite the evidence, it’s hard for me to visualize Khasar crossing this steppe, this road, at least twice! And yet, he must have done just that.
Khasar wasn’t the first to make this daring trip. We had seen two snow leopard migrate across the steppe into a new mountain range before: Aylagch, a young male, and Zaraa, a young female. We had tracked both of these cats with GPS collars as they dispersed from their mothers to seek their own home range. Both left their mothers behind and moved across the steppe from the Tost Mountains to Nemegt, searching for a place of their own. While we know for sure that Aylagch made the Nemegt Mountains his home, we haven’t seen Zaraa again since her GPS collar dropped off.
Khasar, however, is very different from these young transients. He seemingly didn’t cross the steppe in search of a new home, but instead has been going back and forth between Nemegt and Noyon, perhaps even patrolling the entire area regularly, or making regular excursions.
Unlike young transients, who seldom mark or scrape, Khasar makes sure to scrape at each scraping site, at least at those locations where we have photographed him this year so far; a behavior that suggests he may be marking his – possibly enormous – territory.
For comparison, consider the home range of Devekh, a male cat we’ve been tracking with a GPS collar, highlighted in the map in purple. He’s using an area roughly the size of Seattle – considerably larger than the ranges of most other cats we’ve seen. Still, even Devekh’s stomping grounds are dwarfed by the area Khasar seems to be patrolling.
Connected habitats, a connected population
Seeing Khasar move between these two mountain ranges is further evidence for the notion that the mountainous “islands” of snow leopard habitat in the South Gobi may be connected after all.
The snow leopards of Tost, Noyon and Nemegt are not isolated, but instead may be part of what scientists call a “metapopulation.
That would indeed be good news for snow leopard conservation, because connectivity between mountain ranges would help to maintain the genetic vigor among the cats of the South Gobi, making the population more robust.
However, it also means that we cannot just focus on protecting core habitat for snow leopards and other wildlife in the mountains – we also need to protect the buffers and corridors that allow them to migrate between neighboring habitats.
These insights are of course informing our approach to protecting populations on a bigger landscape level, as opposed to small clusters.
This approach is also reflected in the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Plan (GSLEP), which has been agreed upon by all range countries at the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum in Bishkek: Therein, the goal of securing “20 healthy cat populations by 2020” explicitly mentions that connectivity with other populations is a key criteria for determining a healthy snow leopard population – a direct result of our long-term snow leopard research that our generous supporters have made possible!