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Snow Leopard. Photo WWF.Welcome to resources and news on how local communities and conservationists are saving the endangered snow leopard and protecting its Central Asian mountain habitat.

Keen to help save endangered snow leopards?  Get involved here.

Photo of a poached snow leopard reputedly with Russian businessman Pavel Te circulating social media. The snow leopard expert community is trying to find out the truth behind this cat's death. The family of the man conserned say the image was photoshopped.

Photo of a poached snow leopard reputedly with Russian businessman Pavel Te circulating social media. The snow leopard expert community is trying to find out the truth behind this cat’s death. The family of the man conserned say the image was photoshopped.

This sad, awful photo is circulating social media now. Concerned people in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia started circulating it a few days ago and everywhere people are very upset about it. It is good to see the amount of condemnation coming through as more and more of us realise it is not acceptable under any circumstances to kill snow leopards and other endangered wildlife.

The snow leopard expert community and NGO’s are trying to find out the truth behind the photo which the man’s family say is photoshopped. But this is still a poached snow leopard and we want to know the truth behind its death. Killing snow leopards is illegal in all 12 range countries. Unfortunately despite laws and regulations hunters are sometimes  not made accountable.

One thing this photo does show is that there are stll some people amongst us who consider hunting and killing an endangered wild cat to be a fun sport. The message to this small minority of folks is – killing animals like this is not sport. It is  inhumane, arrogant and illegal. Your time is running out, and with the power of social media the world is watching you.

Former poacher now saving snow leopards

A snow leopard caught on camera trap in Altai

A snow leopard walks the mountains of Altai. The cats are now helped by local conservationist Mergen Markov. (Photo Altai Project.)

One of the most heartening things for all of us in wildlife conservation is to hear this story. A young man spends years as a poacher, catching animals to secure his family’s income but now turns his skills to helping these same endangered animals.

The Altai Project is a conservation group saving snow leopards in the magnificent Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. Now they have such a snow leopard protector, Mergen Markov, who was recently honoured with a Disney Conservation Hero Award from Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF). This award recognises citizens for their efforts to save wildlife, protect habitats and educate their local communities.

This is Mergen’s story.

An indigenous Altaian livestock herder and hunter, Mergen was initially approached by Altaisky State Nature Reserve’s senior scientist, Sergei Spitsyn. Coming from a long line of hunters, the risk of leaving poaching was great for Mergen, who relied on the illicit income for his family’s livelihood.

Remote Altai Mountains in Russia. Photo by Sibylle Noras

Remote Altai Mountains home to snow leopards. (Photo by Sibylle Noras.)

Sergei explained the incentive program to Mergen, and he cautiously agreed to be its first participant. Putting aside his snare-traps for camera-traps and hoping to secure images of new snow leopards, it was not long before he had captured incredible images of two snow leopard kittens. Nearly a year later, he is now a valued member of the patrol team and a true conservation hero! When he isn’t in the field, he’s talking to other herders and hunters about the importance of protecting wildlife and the dangers of poaching.

All these stories show one thing. If local people are able to support their families by protecting wildlife they are all willing to do it. When programs like the Altai project offer alternative livelihoods people are able to become stewards and protectors. We congratulate Mergen and our Altai Project colleagues for this wonderful work. We hope you can help by supporting their snow leopard conservation by donating here.

Global Snow Leopard Program meeting

Pakistan Minister for Climate Change Mr. Mushahid Ullah Khan at right. (Photo GSLEP Secretariat.)

Congratulations to the Hon. Minister for Climate Change from Pakistan Mr. Mushahid Ullah Khan, who has been elected chairman of international steering committee of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) Program at the Bishkek meeting in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Addressing the meeting, the minister assured the participants that Pakistan would join global efforts for protection and conservation of the endangered snow leopard, whose population has declined rapidly in the country because of illegal hunting.

He also reiterated the will of the present Pakistani government and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and said that Pakistan is seriously committed to the global efforts for protection and conservation of endangered snow leopard.

Global Snow leopard program steering committeeThe snow leopard expert community believes the key to saving the iconic cat in its fragile habitat lies in community education so it was encouraging to hear the minister say that a big part of the GSLEP strategy will be focused on educating rural mountain and herder communities about the need to protect snow leopards, engaging them in conservation efforts, and helping them have sustainable livelihoods.

Full story in Pakistan Today.

Global Snow Leopard ForumThis week on March 19th and 20th, Ministers and senior officials of 12 snow leopard range countries will come together for the first Steering Committee meeting of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystems Protection Program (GSLEP) in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic. They will continue the work begun in October 2013 when all 12 countries signed the Bishkek Declaration to protect their snow leopards.

Women in Noorus costumes in Kyrgyz republic. (Photo BBC.)

Women in Noorus costumes in Kyrgyz republic. (Photo BBC.)

The GSLEP Program is a world first, a joint initiative of all the governments of the range countries, many international organisations, civil society and the private sector. Together the aim is the long-term survival of the snow leopard in its natural ecosystem.

Members include the Climate Change Minister of Pakistan, Mushahidullah Khan, who told his country’s media yesterday, “Glacial area in Pakistan’s north is spread over 16933 square kilometre, which provides remarkable habitat for the endangered snow leopard but these habitats are vanishing due to rapidly melting glaciers as average temperatures in the northern parts soar.”

“Snow leopards are at risk also from poaching,” he said, and asked people living in range countries to help their governments to stop illegal hunting.

Mr Mushahidullah Khan also said he hoped joint efforts to be pledged by countries at the GSEP meeting in Bishkek would help protect snow leopards from becoming extinct and preserve the critical biodiversity found in their mountain habitats.

Key partners in this initiative include – The State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry under the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, along with the GSLEP Secretariat , the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), Union for Conservation of Nature and Biodiversity (NABU), Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), Snow Leopard Conservancy, Snow Leopard Network, NABU, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), World Bank (WB) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

On the 21st of March delegates will join the Noorus (Central Asia NewYear) celebrations where there will be ceremonies associated with “New Beginnings”. In some homes owners have a lovely tradition of burning juniper leaves to let the smoke drive away bad spirits

There’ll also be the taking of sumalaq, a special ritual meal, only made now and like New Year everywhere, people will be visiting friends and relatives.

Happy New Year to all our friends and colleagues in Central Asia and good luck with saving the snow leopard in all your countries.

Today is International Wildlife Day

Snow Leopards in China

This is how we want to see snow leopards, wild and free. Two snow leopards captured on a remote camera trap in China. (c) Shanshui and Snow Leopard Trust.

Today we celebrate International Wildlife Day with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message “Getting serious about wildlife crime means enrolling the support of all sections of society involved in the production and consumption of wildlife products, which are widely used as medicines, food, building materials, furniture, cosmetics, clothing and accessories.”

Sadly snow leopards are still killed and traded for their fur and other body parts despite all range countries having laws against this.

Snow leopards have been listed in Appendix 1 of CITES since 1975, but 40 years later illegal trade in snow leopards still poses a serious  threat to the long term future of the cats according to the recently released “Snow Leopard Survival Strategy 2014“, published by the Snow Leopard Network.

China, which has the largest snow leopard population of all countries still has a huge illegal wildlife trade. We acknolwedge that the government of China has recently taken big steps to address this. In 2013 they seized over 200 kg of ivory products in Beijing’s markets and mounted a targeted campaign across the country

But much more needs to be done. Regular and continuous monitoring of markets in snow leopard range countries as well as monitoring of online websites is critical.

On International Wildlife Day let us all use today to consider how we might make a difference, by educating ourselves on illegal wildlife products we might see in our own countries or while travelling abroad, so we don’t become a part of the problem by purchasing them.

 

How snow leopards have adapted to cold high altitudes. (C) Sibylle NorasWe are now in the coldest part of winter in the Himalayan and Central Asian mountains snow leopards call home.

Let’s remind ourselves how these cats have adapted to the extreme cold (minus 25 degrees Centigrade  or 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and to the extreme high altitudes (3500 to 5500 metres or 11,500 feet to 18,000 feet).

 

2015 International Year of the Snow LeopardIn a world first event, in October 2013, leaders in the governments of all 12 snow leopard range countries came together at the Global Snow Leopard Forum initiated by the President of Kyrgyz Republic, Mr Almazbek Atambayev.

At that meeting in the Kyrgyz Republic’s capital, Bishkek, the 12 countries agreed that the snow leopard and the high mountain habitat it lives in, is too precious to let disappear.

Snow leopards don’t understand national boundaries and often cross from one country to another across high mountain passes when they are searching for food, places to rest or new mates. And this is the main reason why the fact these countries are all working together is such a big thing. Now they can identify where their biggest snow leopard numbers are and work with each other to protect them rather than each country working alone as they have done for the last 10-20 years.

Kyrgyz President launching Global Snow Leopard Forum. Photo Sibylle Noras.

Kyrgyz President launching Global Snow Leopard Forum. Photo Sibylle Noras.

2015 Year of the snow leopard will support trans-country co-operation to save the cats

To help spread the word amongst the people, government authorities and conservation groups in each country, designated 2015 as International Year of the Snow Leopard in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Poaching, habitat destruction and retaliation killing by herders who fear for their livestock, threatens the beautiful snow leopard in all these range countries. Numbers are estimated at dangerously low 3920 – 6390. But in a world first, in Bishkek in 2013 and 2014, the government leaders and conservation agencies agreed “the snow leopard is an irreplaceable symbol of our nations’ natural and cultural heritage and an indicator of the health and sustainability of mountain ecosystems”.

School children in snow leopard nature clubs. Photo Snow Leopard Trust.

School children in snow leopard nature clubs. Photo Snow Leopard Trust.

To show how seriously the governments are taking their pledges to help snow leopards they signed the Bishkek Declaration.The Declaration launched the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) is to conserve the snow leopard and its high-mountain ecosystems. These eco-systems incidentally are also the watershed for a third of the world’s population and will negatively impact millions of people seriously if they are not protected. This region also sustains the pastoral and agricultural livelihoods of traditional village and herder communities which depend on biodiversity for food, fuel, fodder, and often, medicine. To protect these iconic cats, the governments are also supporting their own people, many of whom live in poverty.

Snow leopard range country representatives have worked hard and identified 20 key snow leopard habitats, that is, areas where the largest populations of the cats live. During this year of the Snow Leopard, it’s hoped that they will  share the story of why the cats should be protected through school activities, community meetings, dance and theatre, cultural events and across their countries’ media.

Snow leopard education in the region of Spiti, India.

Snow leopard education in the region of Spiti, India. Photo Snow Leopard Trust.

Our friends at the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera Snow Leopard program are continuing with their vital research work, community education, supporting villagers to protect livestock, helping local women gain an income through snow leopard tourism and more. Check out their websites to see their work during 2015 International Year of the Snow Leopard and support them if you can.

We hope you can join us during the 2015 International Snow Leopard Year.

International Snow Leopard DayDear readers, you might feel great snow leopard excitement today.

Thursday October 23rd 2014 is the first ever International Snow Leopard Day, celebrated by snow leopard NGO’s. There will be many special awareness raising and educational activities in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

Bishkek was the venue for the Global Snow Leopard and Eco-system Protection program launch in October last year. All 12 range countries came together to work to protect snow leopards across their high mountain country boundaries.

This initiative, spear headed by the President Almazbek Atambayev with the support of snow leopard NGO’s, the World bank, WWF and others is bringing the focus on saving snow leopards in threatened habitats over the next 6 years.

The Snow Leopard Network, the community of over 500 snow leopard researchers, conservationists, scientists, biologists and others has today launched it’s updated Snow Leopard Survival Strategy 2014.1 – a completely revised document on the current status of the endangered cat in it’s 12 range countries, the threats facing it and the best practice conservation programs already in place to help it secure a future and to support the people sharing it’s habitat.

Snow leopards are among the most enigmatic and difficult to study of the large wild cats. It is estimated that only around 4,500 to 6500 cats survive in the wild today.

Saving Snow Leopards Report joins the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) and the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) in celebrating the first ever Snow Leopard Day. We hope dear reader of this blog, you have a wonderful day and help support any way you can – spread the word, donate to the SLT and SLC or purchase some wonderful snow leopard craft products.

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL SNOW LEOPARD DAY WHERE EVER YOU ARE.

Charu Mishra, Brad Rutherford and Kuban Jumabai congratulate ranger Toktosun uulu Urmat for his antipoaching work in Kyrgyz Republic in snow leopard habitat. (Photo SLT.)

Charu Mishra, Brad Rutherford and Kuban Jumabai congratulate ranger Toktosun uulu Urmat for his antipoaching work in Kyrgyz Republic in snow leopard habitat. (Photo SLT.)

Wildlife rangers and local people in snow leopard habitats are often at the front line of conservation efforts to save the cats. Often the front line can also mean a firing line as these courageous people have to confront hunters and poachers with guns.

“Park rangers … work hard to stop these outside poachers – but their efforts too often go unrecognized”, says Charu Mishra, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Network and the Science and Conservation Director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

Toktosun uulu Urmat is a ranger in the mountains of Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve in the Kyrgyz Republic, a country with an estimated 100 or so snow leopards. Asanakunov Akil is a member of the local community. Together the two men apprehended a group of illegal hunters in the reserve, took away their guns and ammunition and reported them to the local authorities. Both men have trained and worked hard to get to this stage of participating in their country’s wildlife and biodiversity efforts and they operate in mountain conditions that can be hard physically with high altitudes and extreme cold temperatures.

The men received a citation and also shared a cash award of 10,000 Kyrgyz soms during the recent Global Snow Leopard Forum at Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyz Republic. The awards were organised by the Snow Leopard Trust under its new Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program which aims to recognise and reward the efforts of rangers and citizens involved in courageous anti-poaching operations.

“The two awardees were very proud and happy to see their work recognized in this way”, said Kuban Jumabai, the local Kyrgyz Republic representative of the Snow Leopard Trust. He and Brad Rutherford, the Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust understand the importance of supporting front line efforts by local communities.

Dr Natalie Schmitt, front right, on an Australian Antarctic Division research expedition, using genetic sampling on the  humpback whale. (Photo N. Scmitt.)

Dr Natalie Schmitt, front right, on an Australian Antarctic Division research expedition, using genetic sampling on the humpback whale. (Photo David Donnelly.)

Guest blogger, Dr Natalie Schmitt, a biologist researching the humpback whale turns her focus and skills to snow leopards. She shares her journey with us here.

“In biological terms, a “rare” animal is one that is in low abundance or restricted geographical distribution or both, whereas an “elusive” animal refers to one that has a low probability of detection. As a conservation geneticist, documentary film maker and presenter I’ve always had a deep fascination with these mysterious and intriguing animals, particularly apex predators, as they offer insight into the health and wellbeing of our planet’s ecosystems. These ‘keystone species’ play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other organisms and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species within the community. Without them, an ecosystem can collapse. These species however, prove tremendously challenging to study and it has taken science many years of visionary development to enable us to begin to understand and monitor these important animals.

From whales to Tasmanian devils to snow leopards

Whilst filming a documentary on the Tasmanian Devil in 2004 and 2005, I discovered the usefulness of video camera traps in understanding the behavioural parameters of individuals and populations in cryptic species.

A snow leopard often leaves hair on rocks when it rubs itslef to leave messages for other cats sharing its home range. Jigmet Dadul of the SLC IT points out hair stuck to a rock outcrop in Hemis National Park, India. This hair can be used in genetic sampling to provide data on each animal. (Photo Sibylle Noras).

A snow leopard often leaves hair on rocks when it rubs itslef to leave messages for other cats sharing its home range. Jigmet Dadul of the SLC IT points out hair stuck to a rock outcrop in Hemis National Park, India. This hair can be used in genetic sampling to provide data on each animal. (Photo Sibylle Noras).

However, I really wanted to find a method or a tool that could permit us to study many more aspects of these animals that are key to their conservation; methods and tools that can continually evolve to unlock more of the mysteries that enshroud them. Welcome to the amazing, ever-evolving and useful world of noninvasive genetic sampling!

Why do wildlife biologists need this technique?

This type of sampling has become particularly appealing to wildlife biologists studying rare and elusive species, as they are able to obtain critical data without capturing, handling or even observing an animal. Using hair, faeces or skin samples and the DNA that can easily be extracted from them, this method has the power to assess genetic diversity, population structure and social structure, estimate abundance, track an animal’s movement, identify where populations are mixing, determine sex and today we are very close to being able to estimate age. And these are not the limit of the applications! Given the endless utility of noninvasive genetic sampling, I jumped at the opportunity to study these methods through a PhD with the Australian Antarctic Division, using the humpback whale as my model species; a highly mobile, migratory animal that is largely inaccessible, is wide-ranging and their populations are not easily distinguishable.

With the development of new molecular techniques such as the polymerase chain reaction, we are now able to look at variations in DNA sequences and use those variations to identify species, populations, individuals, sex and now reconstruct age; these are what we call molecular markers. Which marker we use depends on how distinguishable the entities are that we are studying. For example, using maternally inherited mtDNA, I was able to look at broad genetic differences between humpback whales that breed around Australia and the South Pacific, as this marker is highly variable among whale populations as well as species.

A snow leopard marks its territory and leaves hair and whiskers behind. (Photo SLC).

A snow leopard marks its territory and leaves hair and whiskers behind. (Photo SLC).

To detect fine-scale structure however, when you’re trying to distinguish between or track individuals or genetically similar populations, biparental nuclear markers such as microsatellites are used, as sequence fragment lengths vary considerably. Through the combination of both these powerful markers I discovered that humpback whales breeding along eastern Australia mix with a genetically similar endangered South Pacific population on their Southern Ocean feeding grounds. This discovery will help us determine the true impact of whaling on breeding populations as well as how we should manage these populations in the future.

From whales to snow leopards……

Snow leopards are also highly mobile, rare and elusive creatures that are extremely difficult to study simply because they are so rarely seen….and they happen to be one of my favourite animals! However, the same genetic markers that helped me understand humpback whales can also help fill in the knowledge gaps for snow leopards. Using hair follicle and scat samples combined with genetic markers, we can now start to understand their migration and dispersal routes, their social and population structure, population size and food habits, age structure and even track snow leopards in the illegal trade in wildlife parts, at a relatively low cost. My hope is to work with members and researchers of the Snow Leopard Network to help turn this dream into a reality!”

Thank you Natalie and good luck with in using this research technique to assist snow leopard research and conservation.