Day 14: April 19, 2018, 4:00 pm.
A couple of nights ago, our trap camera caught images of a snow leopard mother and her cub exploring and playing with our ibex trap.
Something about the mother’s fur pattern seemed familiar to me, so I decide to play detective for a while this morning and see if I can identify the cat. Örjan mentions that the trap location was on the border of the home ranges of a few cats we’ve tracked in the past. One of them is Anu, a female snow leopard we know perhaps better than any other. We’ve followed her one way or the other – with GPS and camera traps – for most of her life (and most of our long-term study in Tost); since 2009.
We’ve written quite a lot about Anu over the years, especially when we saw her with cubs – so she’s become like a member of the Trust family. I immediately pull up some of our older photos of Anu to compare them to the images from the ibex trap – and it is indeed her, with a cub of about 1 year.
Unlike other big cats, snow leopards appear to have a clearly defined mating season in early spring, and always give birth between April and June. Moms raise their young for 18-20 months, and only have cubs every other year.
Last spring, at age 8, Anu must have given birth to what was her fourth litter.
She had her first cub in 2012, which we were able to document when our team located her den site. Then, in 2014, a camera trap photo showed that she’d had three new cubs that year. Unfortunately, she likely lost that litter, because in 2015, we saw Anu again with three new cubs. Her previous litter would only have been about one year old at the time – far too young to have dispersed – so the most likely explanation is that the 2014 cubs didn’t survive their first winter.
The 2015 cubs, however, grew up and dispersed, and Anu promptly had another cub in 2017 – the young cat we caught on camera with her this week!
It’s quite an exciting find: Anu is the only wild snow leopard whose reproductive history is almost fully documented, and her 2017 cub represents the oldest documented snow leopard reproduction in the wild where the age of the mother is known! This type of insight into snow leopard biology is exactly why we have been conducting this extraordinary study since 2008.
While I’m still excited about our finding, Örjan and Gustaf are already looking ahead. “It would be fantastic to collar Anu again this spring and get even more data as she ages”, Örjan says.
Another two nights have passed without a trap alarm. The snow leopards of Tost are unusually elusive this spring. Örjan, ever the perfectionist, grows slightly restless. I‘m beginning to resign myself to the idea that we might not catch one while I‘m in camp.
The ibex, for their part – perhaps inspired by the example set by their most feared predator – also continue to avoid our box traps. Örjan decides to try another approach. An hour west of our camp, there is a permanent water hole, which is visited daily by all sorts of wildlife. We have installed a camera trap there, and have seen snow leopards, ibex, argali and even birds of prey come and drink there. Today, Örjan wants to try and dart an ibex there – without using any trap – and equip it with a GPS collar.
Conveniently, a local wildlife photographer named Sainbold has built an excellent hide just 50 feet or so from the water hole earlier this spring. He’s been concealing himself there for days to get photos of the animals that come to drink – and he needs a break. He‘s happy to let Örjan use the hide for the day instead. Gratefully, Örjan crawls in, and after a minute or so of arranging rocks and bushes, only the slender barrel of his dart gun is visible. The stage is set for our first ibex capture!
Meanwhile, Gustaf and I hide in a cliff high above the water hole.
Our job is to spot the ibex as they approach the water hole and give Örjan a heads-up via walkie talkie. If he successfully darts an animal, Gustaf and I will make sure to keep track of it. The tranquilizing drugs in the dart take a few minutes to take hold, and we don‘t want to lose sight of the animal during that time. If we‘re lucky, the ibex may just stay in place – but it might also try to flee. We haven’t tried this method before, so it’s impossible to tell exactly what will happen.
Gustaf and I have barely settled in when we suddenly spot a lone young female ibex approaching the water hole; seemingly out of nowhere. She‘s exactly what we‘re after for our study!
The young animal is exceedingly careful. She must have sensed Örjan‘s presence as she approached, and from the way she looks up at Gustaf and myself, she‘s also noticed us. Clearly, we‘re nowhere near a snow leopard‘s level of stealth and camouflage.
Fortunately, we‘re also nowhere near as dangerous to the ibex – and she definitely wants a drink! She soon decides that Gustaf and I pose no threat, and continues her careful approach to the water hole. We watch her inch closer and closer to her target for at least 20 minutes through our binoculars. At times, she takes a few tentative steps towards it, then she stands still for a couple minutes, climbs back up a few rocks – and slowly approaches again.
In whispers, Gustaf updates Örjan about the ibex‘ position. From his hide, Örjan‘s field of vision is very limited. He‘ll only see her once she‘s in reach of the dart gun.
Finally, after what feels like half an hour of holding our breath, the ibex decides that the coast is clear. Or at least clear enough to risk having a drink. She slowly walks towards the water, facing Örjan straight on. To get a dart off safely and hit her flank or shoulder, he needs her to turn sideways. Gustaf and I watch her drink, knowing that our friend‘s finger is on the trigger.
A minute later, thirst successfully satisfied, the ibex looks up, turns in a split second, and walks away slowly – still not showing Örjan her flank. We watch her disappear back into the rocks, and Örjan confirms what we suspected: he did not get an opportunity for a clean shot, and did not want to risk hitting the animal in the face. She climbs back up the mountain and disappears.
No luck this time – but at least we have been treated to an amazing wildlife watching experience. The ibex‘ careful approach was as thrilling as any spy movie – and you can‘t begrudge her getting away without a collar around her neck!
After the thrill of our first near miss, an hour or so passes without any further wildlife visiting the water hole. We all stretch our legs a bit and eat lunch – PB&J sandwiches, a snow leopard camp staple. The temptation to take a nap is hard to resist.
Then, just as we are about to duck into our hideouts again, Gustaf whispers: „ibex!“ 200 feet or so below us, another lone female has appeared on a rock overlooking the water hole.
Slowly, she makes her way down. We‘re back on high alert. Will she be the first ibex we manage to collar? The animal continues its approach, but stops short of the water hole. Did she catch a whiff of Örjan? She stands still for what feels like an eternity, then takes a few steps before stopping again.
It‘s amazing how careful these ibexes are. Watching them from up close really helps you understand just how difficult it must be for a snow leopard to catch one!
Suddenly, the ibex halts her approach and looks up. We follow her gaze and see two argali coming our way from the hills to our North. Argali, a species of wild mountain sheep, are the snow leopard‘s other main prey in this landscape. Unlike the ibexes, who are usually found up on the steepest, most rugged cliffs, argali prefer gentler slopes and rolling hills. Here, at the water hole, these two types of Tost terrain meet – and so do its inhabitants.
The ibex and the argali watch each other for a minute or two, alertly, but without any apparent fear. Neither quite dares to go for the water though.
It’s High Noon in the Gobi.
Suddenly, the silent standoff takes an unexpected turn. From the steppe to the West, four camels slowly approach. We seem to spot them at the same time as the ibex and argali do. They watch the newcomers trot towards the water hole. The camels, unimpressed by the entire scenario, approach and line up to drink; shielding the argali and ibex from Örjan‘s view and blocking their access to the water.
If you‘ve ever seen camels drink, you know they like to take their good time. Gustaf and I look at each other in disbelief, and Örjan must have been silently swearing in his tight hideout.
The argali are the first to lose patience. After five minutes, they turn and walk away. The ibex stays put.
Eventually, however, she too has had enough of waiting. She strolls around the camels, and for a moment, it looks as if she’s trying to squeeze in among them to get her well-deserves drink. But then she changes her mind and turns in the direction of the cliffs she came from.
Örjan knows this is his last chance for today. The ibex is further away from him than he’d like and there’s an unpredictable wind – but he has to give it a try. He pulls the trigger on his dart gun. It emits only a soft PLOP when the dart is fired, but in the general silence of these mountains, it’s loud enough for the animals to hear. The ibex takes off immediately, and even the camels make a run for it. Gustaf and I follow the ibex through our binoculars as she runs up the nearest slope, looking for the white dart and its bright pink stabilizer in her flank.
But it’s not there. Örjan’s shot must have missed her!
After a while, the ibex slows down, but she keeps climbing the mountain, coming in our general direction. For a moment, I lose sight of her as she disappears behind a small ridge. I’ve just risen from my hiding position to scan the cliffs for her when her horns, and then her entire head, suddenly pop up on the ridge just 40 feet or so from me.
The ibex and I stare at each other for couple of seconds mutual surprise before she takes off – and this time, she has clearly had enough of these strange intruders. Swiftly, she dashes up the steep slope and disappears for good.
We wait another 20 minutes or so, but no other ibex appear. Time to call it a day. Ibex collaring will have to wait a bit longer.
We’ve learned quite a lot from this first attempt though, which will hopefully help make the next try successful – perhaps as early as tomorrow, if the wind doesn‘t pick up.