Tracking the Mountain Ghost

For almost a decade, Swedish researcher Örjan Johansson has studied the elusive snow leopards of the Gobi Desert. His pioneering work includes equipping 23 individual snow leopards with GPS collars, and publishing groundbreaking papers on how these cats use their habitat or how frequently they kill prey. Last month, Örjan defended the PhD thesis he wrote on this research. In this article, he shares some thoughts about his unique work and what motivates him to do it.

Tost Uul, the Gobi Desert, Mongolia – 02:00 am

I wake reluctantly to the sound of my second alarm bell, ringing loudly two meters from my bed. The horrible sound of the first alarm is not enough to wake me anymore. I have, once again, turned it off in my sleep, so I keep a second alarm bell out of reach.

I turn on the headlamp, open my warm sleeping bag and crawl out, shivering. While I have not taken off my thermal underwear for the last two months (except for the weekly wash), it still feels cold in the ger – the traditional Mongolian tent that I now call my second home. I put on several layers of warm clothes, concluding with a windproof layer.

Equipped with my telemetry-receiver – a small device designed to pick up signals from radio-transmitters, I start the hike up the small, but steep, mountain. It is freezing cold and utterly quiet. The stars and moon are bright enough that I could easily see the trail, but I dare not turn off the headlamp because should I fall and injure myself, several days would pass before help arrives.

It is exciting to think of all the desert-dwelling animals that are watching me as I ascend the mountain. At the same time it is a little frightening, perhaps I will once more come across a snow leopard. Sure, snow leopards are notoriously peaceful and there is only one confirmed instance of an attack on a human. But as I’m ascending the mountain alone in the dark I can’t help wondering if anyone else ever hiked around alone, smack in the middle of the snow leopards’ mountains and if this could somehow change the odds of being attacked.

There are 14 snares hidden in the narrow ravines surrounding my camp, each one equipped with a trap-transmitter that changes pulse once an animal gets caught. It is because of them that I make this hike; every third hour, from early evening to late morning, the trap-transmitter signals are checked to see if anything has been caught. This signal-check continues night after night, for up to three months in a row, whether or not I have help from anyone else.

One of the 23 cats Örjan collared – Tsetsen (M11), shortly after being fitted with his GPS collar, Tost, Mongolia. Photo by SLT

During the more than one thousand days that I have spent here in the Tost Mountains since we launched the study in August 2008, I have caught 23 different snow leopards, several of them more than once: in total 50 captures.

The capture techniques have evolved and been fine-tuned over the years. The greatest change happened when my brother, Torbjörn, developed an automatic trap-surveillance system that monitors the snares continuously for us. As long as the system works, I get to sleep and the snow leopards only have to spend a minimal time in the snares; our record so far is 27 minutes from capture to arrival at the snare.

Once a snow leopard has been caught, it is equipped with a GPS-collar, programmed to acquire a location every five hours for about one and a half years, after which it drops off. Many of our snow leopards have worn several collars, and one has been followed for four and a half continuous years.

Twenty-three snow leopard may not sound like many, but the amount of GPS-data that these animals have provided equals, or probably exceeds, the data collected by all other snow leopard studies combined.

Lasya, a female snow leopard who was equipped with a GPS collar in the long-term study. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust
Why do this to yourself, and to the snow leopards?

To answer that question, you first need some background information about the snow leopard. The species is found in the highest mountains of Asia, from the Himalayas in the south to the Altai in the north. Here, they lead secretive lives; thanks to their excellent camouflage and elusive nature, people almost never see them. The rare glimpses of snow leopards almost exclusively occur when a leopard attacks livestock, after which they disappear back into the mountains.

As a testament of their elusive nature, in many areas where they occur, the local people call them mountain ghosts. Predation on livestock has been long regarded as the major threat to the species survival because local people often kill the cats in retaliation or to prevent future attacks.

In recent years, the demand for fur and body parts used in traditional Asian medicine has increased, probably causing an increase in poaching. The remoteness and inaccessibility of snow leopard habitat was long seen as a safeguard against habitat destruction, but climate change and rapidly increasing developments such as mining, hydrology power dams and the infrastructure following such developments has changed this.

The remote and inaccessible habitat and elusive nature of the snow leopard made it almost impossible to study. Observation studies were originally not possible since one never saw them, and snow tracking was not feasible since one could not follow them in the precipitous slopes.

The first breakthrough happened in 1982 when the first snow leopard was equipped with a radio-collar. With the aid of technology, fundamental questions on the species ecology such as how large an area does one individual use, are they territorial, how often do they kill prey, and what are their daily activity patterns could finally be answered.

However, it soon became clear that even with this new technology, it was extremely difficult to collect solid knowledge; the radio-collars require that the signals from the marked animal is located with handheld receivers and the snow leopards covered much larger areas than what the researchers could do on foot in the mountainous terrain. In total, 14 snow leopards were equipped with radio-collars in five different studies conducted in Nepal, India and Mongolia.

The researchers conducting these studies were heroic pioneers, and each data point they collected was hard-earned. Nonetheless, by the mid 1990’s the last study was concluded, probably because it was perceived that the data collected did not justify the suffering of either the researchers or the snow leopards.

A few years after the millennium, new technology that appeared promising for snow leopard studies were developed, such as trap-cameras and GPS-collars small enough to attach to a snow leopard. This study was launched in August 2008 to study all aspects of the snow leopard’s ecology, evaluate new conservation measures, and train key staff for snow leopard conservation.

Örjan Johansson, collaring a wild snow leopard in Mongolia
Örjan Johansson, collaring a wild snow leopard in Mongolia. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust

Now, nine years later, we have learned that snow leopards have much higher kill rates than previously thought. We can also show that they are territorial, and that a snow leopard roams over a much larger area than previously thought. This finding shows that the protected areas in the snow leopard distribution range are too small to safeguard the population and to save the species, so we need to help local people co-exist with the snow leopards outside of the protected areas.

A small part of the knowledge we have gained has been summarized in my thesis. Hopefully it can aid in designing more efficient conservation measures, and increase politicians’ awareness of the conservation issues at stake.

The irony is that in striving to save the snow leopard, we reduce it from a ghostlike creature to something so square and dull as statistical tests and numbers in tables. However, while these simplistic descriptions can adequately describe key aspects needed for conservation, they can never provide a good enough description to understand what a snow leopard truly is.

Much work remains, hopefully we will one day have all the knowledge needed to save the species, be it that some aspects of the snow leopard cannot be described in words and will be kept to themselves. Nonetheless, with better knowledge, our chances to safeguard the persistence of snow leopards will increase, and thereby diminish the risk that one day they will be remembered as nothing but ghosts from generations past.

 

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for your hard work, endurance and dedication to these sacred and magnificent creatures. Congratulations on your PhD. May all continue to go well for leopards, local people and your research in your efforts to preserve and protect this species. Thank you!

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