Wild Snow Leopard Cubs Found in Den

Researchers from the Snow Leopard Trust have been able to locate and examine a pair of wild snow leopard cubs in their den in Mongolia. The discovery will help experts better understand and ultimately protect the endangered cat.

Press Release, Seattle, 09/07/17 

An international research team have found and recorded a pair of rare, endangered snow leopard cubs in a sheltered den site in Tost Nature Reserve, Mongolia. The team had tracked the cubs’ mother with a GPS collar for several months as part of an ongoing long-term snow leopard study.

Eventually, they determined that she must have given birth, and entered the den to examine the cubs after the mother had left, presumably to go on a hunt.

“We found two healthy cubs, one male and one female, both weighing just under 2 kilos”, says Gustaf Samelius, the Snow Leopard Trust scientist who led the research team along with Per Ahlqvist, a special advisor to this project.

It’s a rare occurrence indeed: there may be fewer than 4,000 snow leopards left in the wild, and this was only the fourth time researchers have ever been able to observe wild cubs in their den.

The discovery will help us find out more about how often these cats have cubs, how large litters are, and how many cubs survive to adulthood – key information for their protection.

“Despite snow leopard research dating back to early 1980s, we still don’t have any information on basic demographic parameters such as birth rates and survival”, Samelius says. “Without this information, we can’t really say with any confidence how many snow leopards there really are, and how they are doing. Gathering such information is therefore very important for our understanding of the species and for developing conservation plans.”

The left eye of one of the two cubs was not yet fully open when our team visited the den. This is most likely due to a phenomenon called ankyloblepharon, a partial fusion of the eyelids to each other along the lid margins. This is fairly common among newborns of certain species and usually lasts about 10 days in puppies and kittens. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust.

With his colleagues, Samelius will be observing these two cubs as they grow up and eventually disperse from their mother around the age of 2. “We’ve tagged the cubs with small chips that will allow us to identify them later on if we capture them as adults. We’ll also set up a dense network of camera traps in order to get as complete a picture as possible of their youth, up to the age when they’ll leave their mother.”

Studying snow leopards: Challenges and breakthroughs

The den visit was part of the ongoing long-term ecological study on snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi province that’s been conducted by the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences since 2008.

During this study, we’ve been constantly monitoring the snow leopard population of Tost with camera traps, and have tracked a total of 23 individual snow leopards with GPS collars. Currently, we are tracking three cats, two males (M12 and M13) and one female (F10, the mother of the two cubs now found in their den).

wild snow leopard climbing up a hill looking back toward the camera
A total of 23 wild snow leopards have been tracked with GPS collars in our long-term study in Mongolia. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust

This long-term research has given us a fairly good understanding of the behavior of individual snow leopards, such as what they eat, how often they kill, if they are territorial, and how much space they use. However, questions related to the ecology of the population (demography) are still poorly understood.

Illustration on movement patterns by a female snow leopard named Lasya around her den in 2012. Lasya restricted her movements from an area of about 16 by 8 kilometers to and area of about 3 by 3 km during the denning period. On 3 June Lasya went “off the air” (did not send any GPS locations) and was “off the air” until 8 June which is what we interpret as her giving birth and not leaving the den where there is no satellite coverage.

Details on birth and mortality rates, cub survival, or dispersal are largely unavailable. Camera traps only show an incomplete picture here: they don’t allow a definitive determination of litter sizes and thus survival rates of cubs. Nor do they give information about the age of first reproduction or the reproduction frequency in wild snow leopards. This is crucial information for estimating how many snow leopards there really are in the wild – and den visits are the only way to obtain it.

To the left is a map that illustrates how our team was able to locate a wild snow leopard den on a previous den visit in 2012. We do not provide the movement patterns of F10 at this time to avoid revealing the location of her den.

Acknowledgements 

This work is a result of the ongoing long-term ecological study on snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi province that’s been conducted by the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences since 2008. The conservation organization Panthera helped launch the study and was a partner until 2012.

We are thankful to the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences for partnering with us in this research endeavor.

Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by the Whitley Fund for Nature, has helped tremendously with this work.

We are equally thankful to Cat Life Foundation, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Disney Conservation Fund, Edrington Group, Kolmarden Zoo, Nordens Ark, Nysether Family Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust UK, Turner Foundation, Twycross Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, and all other donors and supporters.

Special thanks go to Elizabeth Alaniz and Carol Wolfson for funding this den visit, and to all staff, and in particular the SLCF team in Mongolia; board, volunteers, zoos and donors who supported the work.

12 Comments

  1. One thing that happens all the time in Florida, where I live, is that the FEW remaining wild Florida panthers are almost constantly badgered by “scientists”, “researchers” ….almost anyone who has the ability to do so……shoots them with a tranquilizer gun and then draws blood, or takes other samples from them, then they are released….but I have to wonder what the cumulative effect of so many tranquilizers, and being over and over again frightened by being stalked, shot, being handled by humans, and so on, is…..!!! I HOPE that the Snow Leopards are LEFT ALONE! Except only when there is a real need to know and only then, to repeatedly shoot them with tranquilizers and handle them with causes great stress on any wild animal…..!

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