Throughout the snow leopard range, Trust researchers like Rishi Sharma and Li Juan are tracking snow leopard populations with research cameras. They hike up steep slopes and scramble down rocky crevices to find the perfect spots to set up their cameras – and then they make the same trip again a few months later to collect the photos and look for hidden gems! Check out their best pictures at the bottom of this post!
Snow leopards aren’t in the habit of posing for cameras, so while they provide valuable data, many of the photos our researchers capture probably won’t ever be featured in the pages of glossy nature magazines.
Every once in a while, however, there is a real gem among the hundreds of blurry black-and-white images. Indian field scientist Rishi Sharma recalls the moment he discovered one of the most amazing research camera photos to date: “Our cameras take a picture whenever something moves in front of them, so each time I analyze new pictures, I find myself looking at hundreds of yaks, goats and birds. Hidden in between are a few pictures of snow leopards, mostly travelling at night. Identifying these cats helps us to monitor the population, but the photos aren’t much to look at. But last fall, after having looked at hundreds of blurry night shots, I found one photo that made all the hiking worth it. A fluffy cub – not more than a few months old – was padding along the ridge on a sunny day. It was as though the cub chose the best light to have its picture snapped.”
Much like Rishi Sharma, Li Juan is used to browsing through hundreds of photos. She conducts her photo research in the Sanjiangyuan region on the Tibetan Plateau in China, home to one of the world’s largest snow leopard populations. One of Juan’s cameras in the area is focused on a rocky junction between two valleys near the township of Suojia. This location seems to function as something of a signpost for the local fauna, as a large number of mammals pass there at different times, with many of them sniffing and marking the spot. Snow leopards are one of the species that visit regularly: “Within 2 months, we photographed at least 29 different individual snow leopards in this area”, Li Juan recalls, “including five female cats with cubs. Four females had one cub each, and one cat had two cubs.”
While most of our research camera photos don’t have this iconic quality, even the most blurry black and white picture of a cat’s tail at midnight can have scientific value. “Data from these photos will allow us to develop a better understanding of the snow leopard population. Will it increase due to the conservation programs that protect the cats and increase their prey? How many cubs make it through the harsh winters? We hope to find answers to these crucial conservation questions” says Rishi Sharma.
Tracking a Cat’s Growth on Camera
In our Long-Term Ecological Study in Mongolia, we’ve been in the unique position of following a handful of cats over several years with GPS collars. Research cameras in the same area allow us to keep track of these cats once their collars drop off – so we can paint a more complete picture of a cat’s life.
For instance, in 2009, we were able to photograph a tiny female cub, nicknamed “Dagina” for the first time, closely following her mother, Agnes.
The next year, we met Dagina again in a new set of photos, as a young adult.
In 2012, we managed to collar her and track her movements. A few months later, while taking two key government officials on a tour of the area Dagina had chosen as her home range, Puji and Sumbe, two of our Mongolia team members, suddenly saw themselves face to face with Dagina’s own young cub – and managed to snap a picture that rivals our best research camera photos! “The cub had likely explored outside of the den while its mother was off hunting”, Puji remembers. “We took a quick photo, and then quietly left so as not to scare him.”
Check out 10 of our most iconic research camera photos ever: