We’ve known for a long time that snow leopards didn’t care about political borders – GPS collaring data has shown cats moving freely between countries several times.
What’s more surprising is that so-called natural borders don’t seem to always stop these cats either: Research camera photos and GPS locations reveal snow leopards crossing rivers and even walking across 40km of steppe occasionally!
During a recent population study in India’s Pin Valley National Park, researchers from our partner organization, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), found an unusual sight on the pictures taken by one of their camera traps: a dripping-wet snow leopard!
The camera had been placed near Pin River, a fast-flowing tributary of the larger Spiti River, 15 to 30 meters wide at this time of the year. It seemed like a far-fetched idea that a snow leopard would cross such a stream, given the fact that these cats aren’t known as particularly good swimmers. At the same time, there really wasn’t any other explanation for the cat’s appearance.
To find out more, the team checked the other cameras they had set up in the park, and lo and behold, the same cat had been photographed on both sides of Pin River, so it seems like it did indeed cross!
In Kyrgyzstan, snow leopard scientist Kuban Jumabai uulu has observed the same type of behavior.
“For several years, we’ve seen an old snow leopard with distinctive scars on his face on pictures taken in Sarychat Ertash reserve. We’ve nicknamed him ‘Fighter’”, Kuban says.
“Our camera trap data show that Fighter seems to be crossing the Sarychat river quite frequently, both in spring and in fall. Sometimes, he was still completely soaked when he passed our cameras.”
More recently, a team of researchers with our Chinese partner organization, Shan Shui, captured amazing photos of a dripping wet snow leopard which had just crossed the Tongtian river, in Qinghai province.
“The river is at least 50 meters wide in this spot”, says Chen Cheng, Snow Leopard Project Manager with Shan Shui. “It was certainly a surprise to see this snow leopard swim across it.”
Crossing the Desert
Rivers aren’t the only natural border snow leopards have crossed. We usually think of snow leopard habitats as vast, endless mountain ranges, like the Himalayas. But in Mongolia’s South Gobi, the cats’ primary habitat is very different: they inhabit relatively small mountainous ‘islands’ in a desert ‘sea’.
Given the distances between these ‘islands’, we long thought the Gobi’s snow leopards were confined to the mountain ranges of their birth – until a cat we were tracking with a GPS collar proved us wrong.
When this young male named Aylagch dispersed from his mother, he left the Tost Mountains, where he’d been born, and set out on a 40km journey across the barren, dry steppe to find a new home in the Nemegt mountains, an independent range to the north of Tost. He presumably used the cover of darkness, and the limited broken terrain offered by ravines that break the monotony of the desert.
At least two other cats have made the same journey several times – one tracked by GPS, one captured repeatedly by cameras in both mountain ranges.
It was only thanks to this discovery that we started to think of plains, steppe and other flat areas between mountain chains as important parts of snow leopard dispersal corridors. “Now we know that mining, major roads, fences and other infrastructure in the areas between the mountains can potentially disrupt these dispersal routes and fragment snow leopard populations”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director.
“These findings illustrate how mysterious the snow leopard still is to us”, Mishra adds. “With every study, we’re learning something new about this cat. We now know, for instance, that the steppe region between Tost and Nemegt must be protected, not just for the gazelles, wolves and the unique plant formations inhabiting the steppe habitat, but also for snow leopards themselves. Each new piece of information helps us plan better to protect snow leopards from the threats they face.”
One key effort to better protect snow leopards across political and natural borders has emerged in recent years – the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Program (GSLEP). All 12 snow leopard range countries have rallied about this iconic cat, and have come together to form this joint initiative, supported by international partners such as UNDP, GEF, USAID, WWF, the Global Tiger Initiative Council, NABU and the Snow Leopard Trust. The GSLEP program’s goal is to develop a network of at least 20 connected landscapes big enough to support viable breeding populations of snow leopards.
“The insights that we’ve gained in recent years about how snow leopards use landscapes have informed and driven the GSLEP program’s priorities from the very outset”, says Koustubh Sharma, International Coordinator at the GSLEP Secretariat.