by Sibylle on August 20, 2012

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.

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.

People of India giving a little to make a big difference to their wild snow leopards

June 18, 2014 India

  Across India people are giving small amountsof money to make a big difference to the remaining snow leopards in their country. In a wonderful new initiative WWF India is partnering with Tata Housing to save the country’s snow leopards through the first ever crowd funding campaign for species conservation in India. Crowd funding is […]

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Will climate change bring snow leopard and common leopard into conflict?

June 15, 2014 Climate change

Countries like India, Bhutan, Nepal and China have both snow leopards (Panthera Uncia) and common leopards (Panthera Pardus). Snow leopard and common leopard, although very different in shape and colour, are similar in size and studies have shown they have similar food habits, liking wild animals like musk deer and Himalayan tahr. They also prey […]

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The journey continues – next big Snow Leopard meeting to secure long term future for the cats

June 5, 2014 Bishkek Declaration

“Saving Snow Leopard Blog” readers will recall that last year saw the first ever get together of high government officials from ALL 12 snow leopard range countries in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. Initiated by the Kyrgyz President, the event was ground breaking and saw all the countries sign the “Bishkek Declaration”, promising to work together over […]

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Not roaring but chuffing – hear a snow leopard’s calls

May 27, 2014 Behavior

The news story said hear the snow leopard in Russia roar but snow leopards are the only big cat that cannot roar. This is due to the physiology of their vocal tract which lacks the thick pad of elastic tissue that enables the other cats like lions and tigers to roar. Many zoo keepers and […]

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Chinese soldiers save snow leopard from drowning

May 13, 2014 China

Chinese soldiers this week saved an injured snow leopard that was trapped in a dam in a coal mine in Xinjiang. The soldiers along with staff from the nearby animal husbandry department used a large fishing net to slip around the cat and lift it up to saftey from a steel beam just above water […]

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Snow leopard eats too many of herder’s sheep but still gets away

April 28, 2014 China

The BBC has reported a story that gladdens the heart of all of us working in snow leopard conservation. A herder found a snow leopard and filmed it after it had attacked and eaten a number of his sheep from his flock. The herder said the cat was too full to jump out of the […]

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Zoo blogger researching snow leopards in Nepal – interview with Jonny Hanson

April 20, 2014 Community-based conservation

This month’s snow leopard conservation guest interview is with Jonny Hanson who is doing a Ph D at the University of Cambridge, looking at conflict between the cats and the local people in Nepal. Jonny is breaking new ground in that as he is doing his research he is also using social media to share […]

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Peter Matthiessen author of “The Snow Leopard” passes away, aged 86

April 8, 2014 Obituary

Vale Peter Matthiessen, writer, naturalist, fisherman, novelist, environmentalist, wildlife advocate, adventurer and so much more, who has passed away at age 86. His thoughful, warm and lyrical book “The Snow Leopard” did so much to bring our beautiful cats from behind a mystical shroud out into the world. The book tells of his month long […]

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