This post has also appeared on National Geographic’s Cat Watch blog
Snow leopard habitat is used extensively for livestock grazing and snow leopards sometimes prey on domestic livestock. Even though these events are not frequent, they cause significant economic hardship for herders and lead to retaliatory killings.
Now, new research suggests there may be ways to avoid most of those livestock losses. In a recently published paper[i], a team of scientists led by Snow Leopard Trust researcher Örjan Johansson pinpoints how snow leopard predation on domestic livestock tends to occur, and suggests specific improvements to herding practices that could help prevent it.
Asking all the right questions
“We knew that snow leopards like to eat ungulates, meaning both wild and domestic sheep and goats,” says Snow Leopard Trust researcher Örjan Johansson. “But beyond that, there are many open questions: How much of a snow leopard’s diet is made up of domestic species? How do the cats choose prey, and how much do they need? Are there diet differences between individual cats, or between males and females?”
“These questions are crucial for conservation,” explains Charu Mishra, the Trust’s Science and Conservation Director. “If we understand how snow leopards choose their prey and what factors influence these choices, we can do a much better job of helping local communities coexist with the cats. For instance, if we can predict where and when predation is likely to occur, we can focus our efforts there, which gives us a much better chance to prevent it.”
To get the answers they were after, Johansson and Mishra worked with colleagues from Panthera, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation and Grimsö Wildlife Research Station. Over a span of 5 years, they followed a total of 19 snow leopards fitted with GPS tracking-collars in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains – an unprecedented effort.
“Thanks to data from the collars, we could determine when and where a snow leopard made a kill,” Örjan Johansson explains.
With the help of numerous volunteers, the team was able to find more than 250 kill sites and identify the prey taken at each.
Previous studies have relied on scat analysis to get information about snow leopard diets. But “scats are anonymous,” Johansson says, “They give you an overview of what’s going on in a population, but they don’t tell you which cat left them, or when they were left, so you have no way of analyzing and comparing the predation patterns of individual cats. From scats, it is also not possible to separate instances of hunting from scavenging.”
With data on the eating habits of individual cats, the researchers were able to paint a much more detailed picture in this new study.
Snow leopards like it wild
“The first thing that jumps out is that 73% of all ungulates killed by snow leopards were wild. Only 27% were livestock,” Charu Mishra says. “This is a landscape in which livestock are at least ten times more abundant than wild prey. And yet, the cats mainly prey on wild species.”
This suggests that snow leopards kill livestock opportunistically, but prefer wild ungulates.
Snow leopards can sometimes get inside poorly constructed corrals and cause extensive livestock losses, and the Snow Leopard Trust has been working with herders in several countries to improve corrals.
However, a significant portion of snow leopard attacks on livestock takes place in the pastures, especially on stragglers that have inadvertently been left behind by herders.
“Many of these livestock kills happened at nighttime, when the rest of the herd was safely back at the corral,” Örjan Johansson explains.
Livestock lost in the pastures during the day were usually killed in rugged areas, where herders could easily lose sight of them.
A former recipient of the Whitley Award, known as the “Conservation Oscar”, Charu Mishra knows from years of experience how complex wildlife conservation issues tend to be.
This new research, however, suggests fairly straightforward measures that could make a big difference: “A significant part of livestock losses out in the pastures could perhaps be prevented if very rugged areas of the pastures could be avoided while grazing livestock, and if fewer stragglers were left behind at night,” he says.
If these small changes to herding practices are made and corrals are further improved to prevent cats from entering, livestock predation by snow leopards could be reduced significantly – to the benefit of cats and people alike.
This study was supported by the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences. Financial support came from Cat Life Foundation, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Kolmarden Zoo, Nysether Family Foundation, Twycross Zoo, Fondation Segré – Whitley Fund for Nature, and Woodland Park Zoo.