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