Breaking new scientific ground, Snow Leopard Trust researchers have put GPS collars on three wild snow leopards and five Siberian ibexes in spring 2018 in the Tost Mountains, Mongolia, to understand the animals’ movements.
Ibexes are key snow leopard prey in large parts of the species’ range. This is the first study anywhere in the world that aims to simultaneously explore the spatial ecology of the snow leopards and their prey. The scientists hope to gain new insights into how predators and prey influence each other’s movements and space use.
With the three newly collared cats, the Snow Leopard Trust is currently tracking a total of six snow leopards in the Tost Mountains – three females with subadult cubs and three males.
The five Siberian ibexes that were recently collared – four females and one male – represent the first of their species to be tracked with satellite technology anywhere in the world.
The snow leopard’s GPS collars have been programmed to send locations to a secure server via satellite every five hours, while the ibex’s collars send a position hourly. This allows the scientists to follow and map the animals’ movements. After approximately 18 months, the collars will drop off automatically.
“Thanks to the support of the Mongolian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, we have been tracking snow leopards in this landscapes for ten years with GPS collars. During most of that period, we’ve also been monitoring the populations of key snow leopard prey species such as ibex and argali”, says Gustaf Samelius, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Assistant Director of Science. “With the collaring of ibexes, our study enters into a new phase. For the first time we’ll be able to track individual prey animals and gain a detailed understanding of how their habitat use impacts that of their main predator.”
Later this year, the Snow Leopard Trust’s research team will also collar and track a number of domestic goats which are using the same habitat. “Luckily the goats are the easiest to collar,” Gustaf Samelius says, “but they’re an important piece of the puzzle. Livestock rearing is one of the most important sources of livelihoods and a dominant form of land use across snow leopard range, and it could have a massive impact on the ecosystem and on our conservation decisions.”
The goal of this comprehensive study is to understand the whole ecosystem in the study area of Tost; from the snow leopard at the top of the food chain down to its prey, both wild and domestic, and how these animals use vegetation and water sources.
“We want to see how the different species – who are on different levels of the food chain – interact and how one species’ behavior impacts the other”, explains Örjan Johansson, the Snow Leopard Trust ecologist who leads the collaring work. “For example, does grazing pressure from livestock, or the mere presence of the large herds, prevent the ibex from utilizing parts of the mountain range? Do ibex alter their behavior and movements in the vicinity of livestock? Or are these animals able to use the same pastures and resources without impacting each other?”
A Natural Laboratory
The Tost Mountains present an ideal natural experimental setting for this research. There are more than a thousand ibexes in the Tost Mountains. During the winter and spring, they must share resources such as grass and water with around 45,000 domestic livestock – a number that continues to grow. In the summer and fall, on the other hand, most herders take their animals out into the steppe, largely leaving the mountain pastures to wildlife. This seasonal pattern gives the researchers the opportunity to directly observe the impact of livestock on the ibexes’ behavior as the livestock move in during early winter.
Tracking predator, prey and domestic livestock at the same time is not only relevant from an ecological point of view. It can also provide insights that are valuable for the local community. “Livestock herding is the main source of livelihood for the people who live in the landscape”, says Bayara Agvaantseren, the Director of Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Mongolia. “Livestock losses due to snow leopard or wolf attacks are fairly common, and can be a devastating economic blow for a herder family. The better we understand how all these species use the habitat and interact, the more we can help local herders avoid such livestock losses; and that in turn benefits everyone, including the snow leopards.”
Behind the Scenes – How To (Not) Catch an Ibex
To learn more about how we collar ibex, read our Gobi field diary documenting the first (failed) attempt. A few days later, using the same method, the team would succeed and collar their first of five ibexes.
Collaring of ibex and domestic goats and the combined research on GPS movements of all three species is made possible by the National Geographic Society. Major contributors to the ibex study are David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Regina Bauer Frankenberg Foundation, Disney Conservation Fund, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by Whitely Fund for Nature.
Over 70 foundations, zoos, and corporate partners, and hundreds of individual donors, have made it possible to run our long-term study and collar snow leopards over the past decade—for a full list please visit www.snowleopard.org/decade.
SLT’s long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia is in collaboration with the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation (SLCF), the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the Mongolian Ministry of Environment & Tourism, and the Mongolia Academy of Science.
Special thanks to University of Aberdeen for supporting graduate student projects relevant to this research.