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.
Mongolia has the second largest number of snow leopards. In recent times I’ve had the opportunity to meet one of the country’s most respected biologists and a leader in snow leopard conservation, Dr Bariushaa Munkhtsog.
Munkhtsog was born in western Mongolia and is founder of the Irbis (the word is Mongolian for Snow Leopard) Centre which supports snow leopard research and conservation. His doctorate thesis was on “Snow leopard biology, ecology and conservation in Mongolia”. He is currently a senior wildlife biologist at the Mammalian Ecology Laboratory of the Institute of Biology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences in Ulaanbaatar.
Animated and passionate, Munkhtsog is always happy to talk about snow leopards. He is a great communicator and has his own Facebook page. In the early 1990’s he and journalist D. Shagdarsuren ran a successful program on Mongolian national public radio called “Do not disturb endangered snow leopards.” Since then he has worked together with many local and international researchers and conservationists and been a consultant for more than 10 international TV programs on Mongolian endangered wildlife.
Munkhtsog is rightly proud of his work. He says, “Everybody in Mongolia knows that snow leopard is endangered. I know almost everybody who lives in snow leopard habitat, seems they know me, so it is quite easy to work together on conservation of beautiful, quiet, kind animal like snow leopard”.
Munkhtsog, how did you become involved with snow leopard research?
“I was lucky to work with endangered wildlife in 1990’s, first with Przewalski’s horse (an endangered species of wild horse native to the steppes of Central Asia). One day when I worked in Hustai National Park, my supervisor and vice president of the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature, Mr J. Tserendeleg, asked me, “We are close to start snow leopard research project, would you like to work in that project as a field biologist?” I said, yes, of course and I became a research partner and friend of Dr Tom McCarthy who has worked with snow leopards for a long time.
So I started with snow leopards at Great Gobi protected area as a field assistant. Tom and I both learned a lot in the field collaring and doing telemetry of snow leopards. During this study an old female cat was collared with satellite collar first time in the world. Later the Snow Leopard Trust became a partner and they started implementation of community based conservation project, Irbis enterprises in 1997. Now women make crafts and sell them in return for protecting snow leopards. “
What are the projects you are working on and where are they?
“Recently I was happy to work with Chinese biologists in Xinjiang, training them on snow leopard survey methodology and with Russian colleagues in transboundary areas of Mongolia and Russia confirming their knowledge on snow leopard sign surveys and checking the camera traps.
Nowadays I work in many parts of Mongolia on snow leopard conservation, including Baga Bogd mountains, Jargalant National Park and in Tost mountains where we conduct snow leopard camera trap population monitoring. In Mongolia there are 20 state protected areas harbor snow leopards. Now I am working together for many years with parks to improve capacity and training staff.
I work with Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) and also Dr Rodney Jackson of Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC). With SLC and Dr Jan Janecka we study snow leopard genetics in Mongolia.
Other work is on conservation plans, developing and implemented in Mongolia to conserve endangered snow leopards and prey and habitat. This means discussion with parliament and even Mongolian cabinet. And also country paln for the Global Snow Leopard and EcoSystem protection program (GLSEP). On local level we involve local herders and communities in conservation too.”
What are your biggest challenges?
“Park staff, local communities are doing their best for snow leopard conservation, collecting information themselves using little amount of money ($400) and supporting our activities. We are as academic institution, conducting surveys, analyzing the data and developing recommendations. But sorry to see that local conservation communities, administration, parks do not have funds to implement our recommendations even when they want it very much.”
What is your hope for the future of snow leopards and the people sharing their home range?
“I hope that wildlife can be next to people and not afraid. That there is no hunting. We are conserving snow leopards in Mongolia for 20 years and since 2008 we see them more in the open. We have even seen them on the roof of a ger (yurt like tent) of a local herder. Also I saw one under the park jeep and also we’ve seen a female with 3 cubs in the open at four study sites. I am assuming that snow leopards are coming closer to us not because food or prey are getting scarce, but because people have almost stopped to disturb them in many areas of Mongolia. I hope there is a time when there are more snow leopards and people wouldn’t harm them”.
Thank you Munkhtsog for sharing your story with our readers and we wish you all the best with your vital work.
A heartfelt congratulations to legendary snow leopard biologist Dr. George Schaller, who has received the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal for his lifetime commitment to conserving the world’s wildlife.
The Hubbard Medal is the Society’s highest honour and recognises achievements in exploration, discovery and research. Past recipients include Jane Goodall and Charles Lindbergh.
Dr Schaller is considered by many to be the world’s preeminent field scientist and naturalist and he has dedicated his life to researching and protecting some of the world’s most endangered species, including snow leopards, mountain gorillas, Tibetan antelope, wild yak, jaguars, giant pandas, lions and tigers.
Snow leopard research
One of his key contributions is the first biologist to study the snow leopard in the wild in the early 1970’s at a time when he says “the snow leopard’s life remains unwritten.” (“Stones of Silence – Journeys into the Himalayas”.)
During 1973, Schaller trekked through the remote Himalayan region of Dolpo to study the Himalayan Bharal, (blue sheep) and locate sign of snow leopards, at that time, a species rarely seen in the wild and rarely studied by field biologists. Bharal are natural prey for snow leopards and in order to understand the diet and feeding habits of the cats their major prey is also studied.
Accompanying him on the Dolpo trip was writer, Zen Buddhist and environmentalist Peter Matthiessen who went on to write the book on their travels titled “The Snow Leopard”, published in 1978. This book brought the reality of the snow leopard to readers throughout the world, many of whom had till that time, believed the snow leopard to be a mythical animal. Matthiessen said of Schaller, “He is one of the finest field biologists of our time.”
During the early 70’s Schaller also spent many months in Chitral area of Pakistan collecting data on snow leopard.
Dr Schaller has trekked the mountains of Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Nepal, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Pakistan and India for over 5 decades to study this elusive big cat predator. His photo of a snow leopard taken in Pakistan in 1970 is the first recorded photograph of the wild cat. His work has focused on assessing snow leopard presence, understanding the behaviour and needs of the species as well as its interaction with humans and the threats that humans are to the long term survival of a sustainable population in the wild.
Much of his recent work has been in China’s Qinghai Province where in the Sanjiangyuan Reserve he did the first research on human-snow leopard conflicts on the Tibetan Plateau.
His work in China, along with the Snow Leopard Trust and Shan Shui, one of the leading conservation organizations in China, aims to create a new collaborative snow leopard research and conservation program in China, which has the largest snow leopard population of all range countries, estimated to be 50 percent of the remaining wild population, around 2000 to 3000 individuals.
The research work of Dr Schaller has been instrumental in establishing more than 15 protected areas, parks and reserves around the globe on behalf of endangered species. During the 1950’s his work in Alaska resulted in the establishment of the world’s largest wildlife preserve – the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In snow leopard range countries he has been a driver for the creation of the Shey-Phoksundo National Park in Nepal, now confirmed to be home to snow leopards. He was also key in the establishment of the Chang Tang Nature Reserve in Tibet, which is over 320,000 square kilometres and was called “One of the most ambitious attempts to arrest the shrinkage of natural ecosystems,” by The New York Times.
Awards and recognition
Dr Schaller has been the recipient of numerous awards. In 2007 the National Geographic conferred its Lifetime Achievement Award upon him and in 2008 he won the prestigious the Indianapolis Prize.
Currently he is the Vice President of Panthera, an organisation founded in 2006 and devoted to the conservation of wild cats and their ecosystems. Congratulations again, Dr Schaller.
Remote camera trapping has been used by snow leopard researchers now for many years. How it works is, a researcher will set up a camera in a hidden area, perhaps behind boulders and rocks and when a snow leopard walks past, the movement triggers automatic taking of photos.
The camera of course cannot tell the difference between human movement and animal movement and therefore automatically snaps anyone and anything. Hence this good news story about how remote camera traps are now helping snow leopards in a different way.
The Nanda Devi National Park is a national park situated around the peak of Mount Nanda Devi, which is 7,816 metres high in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India. It is part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which includes Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers National Park, and it was was declared as biosphere reserve under the Unesco’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme in 2004.
In March this year authorities of the Nanda Devi National Park were delighted to see three snow leopards on a picture captured by one of their cameras installed inside the park. The park authorities are limiting the amount of information and photos they make public in order to safe guard the location of the snow leopards.
It was the single biggest sighting of snow leopards in the park but now news is emerging that the same camera traps are helping to keep poachers out of the area.
Director of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Mr S Raisaily said that as well as monitoring wildlife, the over 60 camera traps they have installed are proving to be a major deterrent to poachers. Last year 26 alleged poachers were caught on film and subsequently arrested. Word has also spread to potential poachers in the region that they will be caught on camera.
“This is proving to be a big discouraging factor as people with anti-wildlife mindset now understand the consequences after getting caught on cameras and we regularly monitor all the images on the cameras,” he said.
An unexpected outcome from the research which we hope will help snow leopards in this park survive.
Organisations involved in the Nanda Devi snow leopard project include the Wildlife Institute of India. The work is part of ‘Project Snow Leopard’ being implemented by Ministry of Environment ancd Forests (MoEF), Government of India.
Wide open landscapes, remote wide steppes and craggy magical mountains are home to snow leopards in Mongolia.
Katey Duffey has an M.A. in Zoology from Miami University and her research interests are in carnivore ecology and mitigating human-carnivore conflicts.
This article is about her work in Otgontenger Strictly Protected Area (SPA), Zavkhan province of Western Mongolia, in the Khangai Mountains. The area encompasses 1,000 square kilometres and is best known for the country’s most sacred mountain, Otgon Tenger Uul. The mountain is the only peak in the Khangai range that is capped with a permanent glacier and since the introduction of Buddhism, traditional Mongolian beliefs surround the deities that inhabit this and other of Mongolia’s mountains.
Mongolia has the second largest snow leopard population of all range countries after China. It is estimated there may be around 700-1300 snow leopards in the country. The species is threatened by retaliation killing by herders who have lost livestock to the cat, as well as habitat loss and in some areas, mining development.
Kate’s partners in this work are the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Irbis (snow leopard) Mongolia Centre, Snow Leopard Conservancy and senior biologist, Dr. Bariushaa Munkhtsog.
She reports on the first ever data collected in Otgontenger and surrounding areas from mid-June-mid-July of 2014.
The team gathered data including scat samples, recording scratch marks and location of urine spray as well as photographs from remote camera traps.
They also interviewed local herders on livestock losses and their attitudes towards snow leopards when they threaten their precious sheep and goats. Surprisingly Kate says, many herders admitted, “The snow leopards have just as much right to the land as the people. It is the people’s responsibility to take better care of their animals.”
It’s so wonderful to hear people say things like this, when often they are suffering economically due to a snow leopard’s prey on their animals.
You can read this fascinating article – Understanding a Culture to Protect an Iconic Predator in Zoomorphic Magazine, May 2015.
Disneynature films has released the first teaser trailer for the “Born in China” documentary which will make its global debut in 2016.
The film follows the adventures of three animal families — the majestic panda, the golden monkey and our beautiful elusive snow leopard.
China has the largest population of snow leopards of any range country but the species there has never featured in a nature documentary. It will be wonderful for audiences everywhere, including inside China, to see learn more about endangered snow leopards, how they live and survive and the threats facing them.
The Disneynature films also aim to “give back” to their stars, that is, they support conservation programs for the wildlife they feature via money raised through ticket sales. Through these films Disney Conservation Fund has planted 3 million trees, protected coral reef, migratory corridors in Kenya and chimpanzee habitat in the Congo.
Snow leopard supporters and conservationists everywhere will eagerly await this film in 2016.
Recently INTERPOL, along with the Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz government agencies, made an exciting announcement about their partnership on a snow leopard protection initiative in that country.
INTERPOL is the International Criminal Police Organisation, an intergovernmental organisation facilitating international police cooperation. One of INTERPOL’s objectives is to fight environmental crime, that is, illegal acts which harm the environment. INTERPOL aims to share information and illegal trade intelligence and increase cross border collaboration through their Wildlife Crime Working Group.
Unfortunately snow leopard poaching and smuggling of body parts is still happening throughout most range countries. All such poaching and smuggling activity is illegal but demand for snow leopard products still exists. In the past demand for body parts came from the medicine industry but now conservationists say demand is “fuelled by wealth, not health” by which they mean wealthy citizens wanting skins as ready-made rugs and taxidermy specimens, as status symbols. Rising affluence and increasing disposable incomes in consumer countries is now the major driver of snow leopard poaching. Studies in last few years have shown that snow leopard parts are traded in the wealthy coastal cities of China.
While the program just launched doesn’t cover China we hope it will help Kyrgyzstan’s snow leopards and the snow leopards of its neighbouring countries. Known as Citizen-Ranger Wildlife Protection Program (CRWPP), it will train, publicly honour, and financially reward park rangers and local community members who successfully apprehend illegal hunters.
The Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) has been working in Kyrgyzstan since 2002 focusing on community-based conservation, and more recently, with the Kyrgyz President for catalysing range-wide governmental action for snow leopard conservation. The SLT’s program in Kyrgyzstan, Snow Leopard Enterprises, has helped with the problem of hunting of snow leopards and wild sheep and goats by local community members. However, for many years, community members and rangers have expressed frustration at preventing poaching by outsiders.
“Our existing community-based conservation programs are not as effective against this outside threat,” says Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust.
INTERPOL’s role will be to train rangers on investigative skills and standard enforcement techniques over a period of three years as part of their Project Predator. This project is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Project Predator has been actively participating in international snow leopard conservation efforts for several years, including the drafting of the Law Enforcement Component in the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), 2013.
We congratulate the Snow Leopard Trust and partners in Kyrgyzstan on setting up this program which will help the endangered snow leopard population in their mountains.
We also hope that this type of training and INTERPOL’s involvement can be replicated in other snow leopard countries, including China, where demand for body parts appears to be high.
However much also needs to be done in non snow leopard range countries as the largest markets for illegal wildlife products are believed to be, in order, China, then the European Union and the USA. (IFAW Report 2013).
It sounds logical. An increase in wild prey (that is food) leads to an increase in snow leopards. When the cats have enough to eat they will thrive. A report from Panthera’s Tanya Rosen on snow leopard conservation activities in More on the snow leopards of Tajikistan, shows how this simple fact is evident in the small Central Asia Country.
Tanya writes – “Burgut is one of the conservancies supported by Panthera in Tajikistan. It is located in the Alichur range, in the eastern Pamirs. Mahan Atabaev, the leader of the conservancy and rangers have to date successfully led the recovery of argali sheep, a key snow leopard prey, in this area. In 2012 when the conservancy was established we counted 106 argali, In December 2014 we counted 251 of them. As the numbers of argali are rising so are those of snow leopards.
In 2014 we identified at least 3 different snow leopards. Meanwhile we have also predator-proofed 6 corrals in this area (thanks to the support from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative) to eliminate farmer-snow leopard conflicts. While many challenges remain, anti-poaching and conflict-mitigation efforts are beginning to pay off.”
See more from Panthera, a US based NGO working to save the big cats in the wild.
Our thoughts are with the people of Nepal at this sad time of the devastating earthquake.
So much destruction in both the capital Kathmandu and in the outer regions and villages mean suffering and loss will continue for the whole country for a long time.
Stories of loss of life and destruction of property are also emerging from the areas of snow leopard habitat like Jomsom in Lower Mustang.
Our friend and colleague Dr Som Ale from the Snow Leopard Conservancy reports that some schools which take part in the Snow Leopard Scouts Program have been destroyed and “the livelihood will continue being impacted because stored grains, cereals, crops are destroyed and livestock killed. ”
To our dear readers and supporters of “Saving Snow Leopards” blog, we encourage those who are able to make donations for the recovery of this nation. Every small donation helps and donating over a period of time, even months is important where destruction and loss of life is so extensive.
A heartfelt Thank-you to you all.
Researchers recently announced that snow leopards have been found in the Saylyugem National park, which was created five years ago to protect wildlife in the Altai mountains of Siberia.
The photos were taken by remote camera traps and are the very first to show that the snow leopard is calling this national park home.
This is particularly heartening news at a time when Russia’s snow leopards appear to be in decline due to poaching and habitat loss.
‘Our scientific research began in February and in less than a month we got the first photos,’ said Aleksei Kuzhlekov, a local researcher. ‘The snow leopard was spotted four times, at different times. It is difficult to say though how many were caught by cameras, whether it was one or two.’
Another senior researcher, Sergey Spitsyn, said the videos and images could be of three or four different leopards. ‘Two of them were in footage and they have different patterns on their tails. The others were captured on the photo cameras, but it’s hard to tell if there are any different patterns because of low quality of the photos.’
The National park was created five years ago to protect wildlife such as the argali mountain sheep and the area now totals 118,380 hectares. It was not known that snow leopards were in the area but now that argali are protected they will attrack snow leopards for whom they are a major prey source. The protection of the National Park was seen as important to protect both argali and snow leopards. Unfortunately poachers had killed more than 10 snow leopards in the area during the 1990s and their furs and body parts would have been sold on the black market for Chinese medicine.
The head of the local conservation department, Igor Ivanitsky, adds: “We were able to place the cameras in the right place by painstakingly working out the movements routes of the cats.
“Being then so successful with our camera trapping efforts tells us that the park is their main home and hunting ground.
“Park staff have also found snow leopard tracks and scats (droppings) in several places around the national park, giving further evidence that the big cats are thriving in their newly created refuge.”
The park’s researcher, Alexei Kuzhlekov, said, “The research project was launched in February 2015. We used standard methods for studying snow leopards. After completing our research, we installed camera traps along presumed snow leopard migration routes. It took us less than a month to photograph the first snow leopards. We took four photos of a snow leopard at different times. So far, it’s hard to say whether we have taken photos of one or two snow leopards.”
Dr. Matthias Hammer, Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions, which assisted in the creation of the new National Park says he is delighted with the news.
“We spent ten years working in the Altai, researching snow leopard presence, building local capacity and trying to create economic incentives for local people to keep their snow leopard neighbours alive.
“When we started, there was no national park, little awareness, research or infrastructure, and rampant poaching.
Now the park’s researchers, scientists and colleagues from the Altai Reserve will work on visual comparisons of the snow leopards in the photos with those listed in the their database to establish the exact number of cats and identify individuals. We wish them all the best for their work with this snow leopard group and may the snow leopard population here be safe and grow.