Park rangers in protected areas are a key ally in the fight to better understand and protect the endangered snow leopard. In Mongolia, our local team is training these rangers on how to use monitoring techniques such as surveys, GPS and research cameras.
Mongolia’s Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park (GGNP) is one of the largest protected areas of the Gobi region. The park is crucial for the conservation of snow leopards and their prey in this region. Park staff at GGNP is dedicated and wants to help better understand and protect these endangered cats. However, rangers are lacking information they need about the snow leopards and have limited skills and experience in using techniques such as surveys, or tools like GPS and cameras. To address these needs, our Mongolia team is conducting ranger training workshops focused on building capacity for wildlife monitoring within the GGNP areas.
Pujii Lkhagvajav, the Trust’s Research and Monitoring Manager in Mongolia, led the most recent training this past February. “36 rangers and park staff attended the workshop. That’s three dozen allies who will support our work in the future!”
After an introduction to snow leopard and their biology, participants learned the ins and outs of different wildlife monitoring techniques – from low-tech approaches like using printed forms to record snow leopard signs and presence of prey, to more sophisticated tools such as GPS devices to navigate and map locations. Then, Puji explained how photos from research cameras can be used to monitor cat populations. “The participants enjoyed the challenge of identifying individual cats by their fur pattern”, she says. Much like a human fingerprint, a snow leopard’s spots are unique. Scientists use the fur pattern to identify cats in research camera photos – a first step to estimating the total population.
Estimating populations – with cameras and binoculars
For example, a study deploying 20 research cameras in a part of Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park for a month may yield photos of 5 different cats. Then, a couple of weeks later, the same area is surveyed once more; again using 20 cameras for the duration of a month.
If the new photos show the same five cats, but no others, there’s a good chance the total population in that area is close to five. However, if all the cats identified in the second study are unknown, we’re most likely looking at a significantly larger population.
While the process is infinitely more complicated than that, the basic principle struck a chord with park staff. “The rangers are eager to know how many cats there are in the park“, Puji says.
Research cameras are one important tool to monitor wildlife populations – but they’re not the only method our teams use. “We can’t always find the cats, but we do see signs of them. Counting and mapping snow leopard signs such as pug marks is a very effective approach”, Puji explains.
One important indicator for a healthy cat population is the abundance of prey animals like the blue sheep. Fortunately, these ungulates are easier to spot and count. Population estimates are made using the so-called double-observer method, where two observers search for and count animals simultaneously while ensuring that they do not cue each other on the locations of the animals. “During the training, we took participants into the field, where they could practice counting animals and animal signs, recording the data in survey forms and mapping the locations with GPS”, Puji says.
Lack of tools needs to be addressed
While the training was a success, there are challenges that still need to be addressed – including a lack of survey tools for park staff. “GPS and binoculars are most important tools for rangers. Without these tools, they can’t see animals or record their locations properly”, Puji explains. “Every ranger patrols their responsible areas twice a month, but right now, there aren’t enough GPS units or binoculars, so less than half of them can collect wildlife data on their patrols.”
We would like to thank GGNP director Bayanmonkh and wildlife specialist Narangarav Bayasgalan for their tremendous support and assistance with this training, which was made possible by the generosity of the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and the Whitley Fund for Nature.