The two big cat species were photographed in Angsai county, in China’s Sanjiangyuan (or Three-Rivers) Nature Reserve, last summer. Research cameras also captured eight other carnivore species in the same area, including three other felines: lynx, leopard cat, and Pallas’ cat.
The Three-River Source region in China’s Qinghai province is home to the headwaters of three of Asia’s major streams (Yangtze, Yellow River and Mekong, on Lancang, as it’s known in China), and to an incredible variety of wildlife, including the endangered snow leopard. It’s one of the world’s largest nature reserve, protecting an area that’s larger than England and Wales combined. Since 2012, Chinese conservation organization Shan Shui, in partnership with Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust, has set up a community-based research and monitoring program to better understand – and ultimately protect – the reserve’s wildlife.
They have trained more than 80 local Tibetan herders to participate in the program and collect data in an area totaling c. 2000 km2. “Local community members have set up a total of 104 remote-sensor research cameras across the area, says Cheng Chen, Shan Shui’s Snow Leopard Program Manager.
While most of the cameras have yielded a treasure chest of wildlife images, one particular location has proved to be something a conservationist’s Eldorado. “Near Niandou village, in Angsai county, we’ve seen fourteen different species on the same camera”, says Cheng Chen. “There were brown bear, lynx, wolves, Pallas’ cats… and both snow leopards and common leopards.”
Snow leopard and common leopard photos were taken in the same location both during the winter of 2015/2016 and in the summer of 2016. “Last summer, we even saw a female common leopard with a cub, which was perhaps six months old”, Cheng Chen says, “so it looks like this individual isn’t just passing through the area, but may live there permanently”.
While not unheard of, an overlap of these two feline’s habitats – also known as sympatry – is unusual. A study conducted in Nepal found that the two felines share a taste for the same prey species, but didn’t find significant overlap of habitats. The snow leopard has been found to prefer open, rocky areas, while the common leopard occurs more often in woodlands. Both species have been observed in the other’s prime habitat, but never in the exact same spot – until now. The camera that captured both cats was set near the tree line, right on the edge between the two vegetation zones.
Koustubh Sharma, the Snow Leopard’s Senior Regional Ecologist, believes that there could be more overlap between the two leopard species in the future, as climate change impacts their habitats. “In parts of the Eastern Himalayas, for instance, the climate is becoming warmer and more humid, which might some of the habitat predominantly used by snow leopards today more attractive to common leopards”, he says.
However, he asserts that we have no evidence that such overlaps are a new phenomenon. An absence of evidence cannot be considered as an evidence of absence. It is possible that the two cats have always had some degree of overlap, and have developed strategies to simply avoid each other. We might just not have had the technology and luck to observe this earlier.
Little is known about how the two cats may be able to coexist. “The snow leopard is known to thrive alongside lynx, Pallas’s cats, wolves and even bears. But all these species are either smaller, or have a very different predation pattern. The common leopard, on the other hand, hunts the same animals as the snow leopard, but is bigger”, Koustubh Sharma says. “There’s a possibility that the common leopard could displace the snow leopard if their habitats were to overlap. On the other hand, tigers and leopards also coexist in the same habitat and on nearly the same prey base in different parts of the world, as do lions and cheetahs. Displacement by common leopards is certainly not one of the major threats to the snow leopard right now – poaching, retaliation killings and the loss or prey and habitat are much more pressing issues – but it will be very interesting to observe the two species going forward.”
Dr. Wen Cheng from Shan Shui told the BBC that the availability of food will be key. “The possibility for co-existence or conflict highly depends on the abundance and diversity of wild prey,” he said.