On June 21st, 2012, our field team made a remarkable visit to the den sites of Anu and Lasya. These two females are part of our long-term ecological study and wear GPS tracking collars that help us identify their movements. With this data, we can learn critical information about snow leopard range, habitat and prey needs. This allows us to better understand snow leopards and the threats they face, and make the most of our resources to protect these endangered cats.
In May, Anu and Lasya began to restrict their daily movements to smaller and smaller areas, which the team interpreted as a signal that both were preparing to give birth. Traveling through steep and rocky mountain outcroppings, the team followed VHF signals transmitted by the collars and finally located the dens.
Only six kilometers apart, both dens were high up in steep canyons. The first den was in a big cave with a man-made rock wall blocking most of the entrance. ‘As we stood outside the den we could hear the cub and smell the cats but not see anything inside the den,’ said PhD student Orjan Johansson.
Orjan and his colleagues, Sumbee Tomorsukh of Mongolia, Mattia Colombo of Italy, and Dr. Carol Esson of Australia (a licensed veterinarian), extended a camera over the wall and were able to film Anu lying tucked against the wall staring at the entrance with a paw over her tiny cub. ‘This is incredible,’ says Brad Rutherford, our Executive Director. ‘Snow leopards are so rare and elusive that people often talk about them as ‘ghosts’ of the mountains.
At the second den (Lasya’s), the team found two male cubs in a narrow crack in a cliff wall. Confirming that their mother was out on a kill, the scientists were able to enter, photograph the cubs and take hair samples that will allow them to establish the cubs’ genetic identification and confirm sex. They also took weights and measurements and implanted PIT tags (tiny tracking microchips similar to those used by pet owners). Both cubs had full stomachs and appeared to be in excellent health. The whole event took less than 30 minutes.
The team handled the cubs with care and took their measurements as quickly as possible. “This was an unprecedented opportunity,’ says Rutherford, ‘We wanted to be as careful as possible and only take the most pressing data.’ The team listened with VHF from a distance to make sure that the females had returned to the dens. Their constant monitoring has confirmed that both females are still with their cubs. The research teams will not be visiting the cubs or the den sites again in order to limit disturbance to the den areas and the cubs themselves.
These findings are incredibly important for snow leopard conservation. Due to the snow leopard’s elusive nature, very little is known about snow leopards in the wild. Birth rates, sex ratios, cub sizes, litter sizes and cub survival rates have never been documented but are critical to understanding—and planning for—the survival of the species. Follow-up assessment of cub survival will enable the Snow Leopard Trust to clarify the potential for snow leopard populations to grow.
This long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi is a joint project with Snow Leopard Conservation Fund and Panthera, and is in cooperation with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.