Tracking the Snow Leopard

Few people have glimpsed the “ghosts of the Himalayas,” the mysterious, pale-eyed cats that stalk the stony mountain ridges and steep scree cliffs of Central Asia. With notoriously shy dispositions and an increasingly obscure wild population, snow leopards reign among the ranks of animals that both captivate and confound researchers. This year, aided by motion-sensor camera traps and GPS-satellite collars, conservation programs delivered an unprecedented array of data on the planet’s most elusive big cat.

As few as 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards roam the rocky wilds of their remaining native habitat, which includes remote slivers of 12 countries, sweeping through the northlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan into southern Russia on one side and through Nepal and Bhutan into China on the other.

Despite ongoing global conservation efforts, snow leopards face a high risk of extinction due to habitat loss, prey scarcity, and conflict with neighboring human communities. Poachers also target the cats for their bones, teeth, and lustrous ashen coats, all of which tow a large sum on black markets.

Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Keller.

Yet, the greatest challenge to the preservation of snow leopards is that in order to protect them, scientists must first be able to understand them.

“We know that snow leopards have remained one of the least-studied large cats,” Dr. Koustubh Sharma, Senior Regional Ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust, tells BTR. “That can be owed in part to the fact that they live in such a terrain that renders it quite a task for someone to be able to study them in their natural habitat.”

Sharma and his colleagues stand on the front lines of a pioneering long-term study on snow leopard populations in the Tost mountains of Mongolia’s South Gobi Province. Established in 2008, the study aims to address critical gaps in knowledge about snow leopards’ predation strategies, habitat use, reproduction, and population dispersal.

To date, the study has yielded outstanding results, tracking dozens of cats and capturing–for the first time ever–footage of wild snow leopard cubs in a den with their mother.

With the leopards’ home ranges sometimes spanning several hundreds of square kilometers, the acquisition of so much data would not be possible without the aid of technology in the field.

One reliable, decades-old method of studying the spotted cats has been to set motion-sensor camera traps along known leopard routes and to wait for the animals to trigger them. Ultimately, the short battery lives and limited film capacity of previous models proved to be a considerable imposition for researchers, who had to trek deep into and out of perilous crags and cliffs every few days to reset the traps.

Photo courtesy of Ben Morlang.

Today, cameras used by the Snow Leopard Trust last for up to nine months and capture an impressive 30,000 to 40,000 images before researchers ever need to hike out to retrieve them.

“It’s a great example of how the major technological innovations of the last few years have been of the biggest assistance to us,” Sharma says.

He notes that GPS-enabled satellite collars play an equally vital role in uncovering the secret lives of snow leopards. Once a cat is caught and outfitted, its collar emails the animal’s exact coordinates back to researchers by means of satellite telemetry. After 18 months, the collar is programmed to drop off, at which point the team can relocate it and download any additional information it will have stored.

“It is almost as if the snow leopard is sitting with a GPS and a satphone, records its location, and sends it to you as an SMS,” Sharma jokes.

At the Tost mountain site alone, the Snow Leopard Trust’s team has collared 20 cats and accumulated over 25,000 precise point locations.

Photo courtesy of Orjan Johansson.

Conservation groups throughout Central Asia now make use of GPS collars in their efforts to track and study the reclusive big cats. Early last summer, in the wake of the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal, the Himalayan nation found a moment of small reprieve when researchers succeeded in capturing and collaring a snow leopard in the foreboding valleys of the Kanchenjunga massif.

Weighing in at 41 kg and estimated to be around five years old, the male leopard is only the second to be outfitted since Nepalese conservation organizations began using GPS collars several years ago.

“Nepal is proud to be at the forefront of global scientific efforts to get a better understanding of one of nature’s most elusive species,” said Tikaram Adhikari, Director General of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. “Our ability to repeat the success we had with the first collaring in 2013 during this most difficult period for the country is a testament to the commitment towards conservation of the government as well as the people of Nepal.”

Photo courtesy of Steve Tracy.

With sightings so scarce, the mountain of information transmitted by each collared cat offers truly invaluable insights into both individual snow leopard behavior and large-scale distribution, lifting for a brief period the veil between our world and that of these mysterious animals.

“Every year when you put the data together you realize that it helped answer a lot of questions that were perhaps unanswered,” says Sharma. “By continually building upon the previous year’s data, the study becomes far more reliable, far more robust, and far more dependable than the year before.”