The Challenges of Studying Snow Leopards

Tom, our lead researcher, describes the “pains” of field research in Mongolia. Snares have been set so that snow leopards can be captured and fitted with GPS radio collars. The team will do everything they can to make sure the snares are safe and do not harm snow leopard [to find out more, click HERE]. Part of that means checking them all many times each day: 

We are settling into a routine here at Camp Tserendeleg.  Most of our snares [13 so far] are out now, just a few more to find good places for.  It’s not clear when the leopards will make their rounds again to remark the sites where our traps are waiting.  A day? A week?  A month?  No way to tell, we just wait.

Waiting does not mean we just sit, far from it.  The day starts at about 5:30 AM when one lucky soul gets to climb about a thousand feet up a steep mountain side behind camp to a small notch in the ridgeline above.  From there they listen to each of the 13 radios that are attached to our snares. Normally those radios send a slow steady series of beeps indicating the snares have not been disturbed, but if a snare is tripped it pulls a small magnet off the radio and the pulse rate of the beeps becomes much faster (as will our heart rate when that finally happens!)  So far only the slow steady beep of 13 radios has greeted the person who has made the pre-dawn climb. Their radio call back down to camp is short and simple, “No leopards, I’m headed down.”

Despite the fact our trap radios suggest that no leopards have visited during the night, we visit every trap each day just to be sure.  A leopard left in a snare because of a technological glitch is a mistake we simply won’t abide. 

Checking the snares is a long process.  To visit and check on each snare requires a hike of about 15 km (8 miles) – very little of it flat and some of it down right precipitous.  On a normal day two teams can cover the entire trap line in about 3 or 4 hours. 

Early evenings are generally spent sorting and storing the myriad pieces of equipment that have gone to the field that day; trap building tools, GPS, cameras, etc.  And then putting all of the day’s data into the computer. Even simple snare building generates a lot of data, such as GPS location of the snare, what valley it’s placed in, frequency of the trap sensor radio, and dozens of things we note about each snare site so we can see what works and what doesn’t.  

By about 7:00 we are done working and famished.  You might think that was the end of the day, but one task remains.  Just before the light fails someone must again scale the 1,000 foot ridgeline and listen to the snare radios one more time.  We wouldn’t want a cat to stay in a snare overnight.  Kim, a dedicated mountain biker who also seems to be part mountain goat, has voluntarily taken far more than her share of trips up what we have dubbed “Signal Mountain,” and she has paid a price for that. The skin on her heels quickly went from just blistered to raw red wounds. She tried bandages and medical tape, and then resorted to plastering duct tape directly onto the sores, but it too just peeled off.  Orjan finally came to the rescue with a roll of Swedish leucoplast which seems to be doing the trick. 

That’s about a normal day.  The generator is shut down at 10:00 PM and few of us have the energy to read books by headlamp.  It’s a repeat of the same tomorrow at 5:30 AM.   

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