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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.

How snow leopards have addapted 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 dAY snow leopard day for SLB FBDear 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.

 

Indians raise money for snow leopards through partnership between Tata and WWF India crowd source project. (Photo WWF India).

Indians raise money for snow leopards through partnership between Tata and WWF India crowd source project. (Photo WWF 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 a new way to fund important projects by raising many small amounts of money from a lot people via social media.

The Save Our Snow Leopards (SOS) project gives the people of India and anyone else around the world the opportunity to support conservation of the beautiful snow leopard which lives in parts of the Indian Himalayas

Snow leopards are found in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. India has the third largest snow leopard population but there are only between 400 and 700 of them so the country needs to increase both research and community education programs to save the remaining cats.

Why people give

So far SOS has raised over 800,000 INR out of a goal of 1,500,000 INR. People are contributing for many reasons. One contributor said “WWF is a respectable organization. I truly felt the need to do something about the Snow Leopard,” while another wanted to donate as “it is my way of giving back and doing my little part for the good of the planet. Another said “I love animals; I am a nature lover, a landscape photographer. I would do anything to conserve our environment.”

India has the third biggest snow leopard population. The wild snow leopard I watched for 8 hours in the cold winter of Hemis National park, India. Photo by Sibylle Noras. Taken with my tiny compact camera she looks ethereal and ghostly as she peeks out above her luzurious tale. The photo makes her look like the "Ghost of the Mountains.'

India has the third biggest snow leopard population. The wild snow leopard I watched for 8 hours in the cold winter of Hemis National park, India. Photo by Sibylle Noras. Taken with my tiny compact camera she looks ethereal and ghostly as she peeks out above her luzurious tale. The photo makes her look like the “Ghost of the Mountains.’

What the money will be used for

The money raised will be used for setting up camera traps to study numbers of snow leopards and their movement as well as to fund building of predator-proof livestock pens for local communities in snow leopard habitats. When snow leopards are kept out of livestock pens they cannot kill villager sheep or goats so local herders and villagers have no cause to kill the cats.

The SOS campaign is an initiative of both WWF India and Tata and they are using their email lists and Facebook pages etc. Tata is also getting support for the campaign through the ‘Green Guardians’, their employee supporters.

Mr. Brotin Banerjee, CEO and Managing Director, Tata Housing Development Company said, “At Tata Housing, we feel it is important to maintain the balance of natural flora and fauna in the environment along with creating green development to prevent environmental degradation. Our partnership with WWF-India is in line with our efforts to safeguard and conserve India’s unique natural heritage of high altitude wildlife populations and their habitats. We hope our efforts to save the snow leopard will result in maintaining the required ecological balance.”

Save Our Snow Leopards is an opportunity for people anywhere to donate a small amount but make a big difference to the future of the “ghost of the mountains”. You can donate here.

Read an account of a trek to see a snow leopard in the wild in India. Saving Snow Leopard’s Blog trek into the lair of the cat in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, India.

A surprise awaited researchers when they found a common leopard on photos taken by their remote trail camera in Annapurna region, Nepal. Traditionally snow leopard habitat it was always thought by researchers that the habitat of snow leopards and common leopards didn't overlap.(SLC/NTNC). But now that we know common leopards do go as high as 3000m, what does it mean for snow leopards?

A surprise awaited researchers when they found a common leopard on photos taken by their remote trail camera in Annapurna region, Nepal. Traditionally snow leopard habitat it was always thought by researchers that the habitat of snow leopards and common leopards didn’t overlap.(SLC/NTNC). But now that we know common leopards do go as high as 3000m, what does it mean for snow leopards?

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 on the same domestic animals like yaks, sheep and goats.

Until recently researchers thought snow leopards and common leopards would not share the same habitat. Snow leopards occur at a significantly higher altitude than common leopards as they are a cold-adapted species of open rocky mountain habitats. Common leopards on the other hand prefer lower altitudes and have a preference for forest or woodland.

But now we know that their habitat does in fact overlap. How do we know this? A surprise awaited the researchers at the Snow Leopard Conservancy when they found evidence that common leopards do in fact go as high up the mountains .as the lower reaches that snow leopards visit.

As part of a study the SLC used remote camera traps set out by herders and school students in the Mustang region of the Annapurna Conservation Area in central Nepal. When the photos were downloaded it was a shock to see in a few of them a very healthy common leopard was walking across the rocky outcrops of traditional snow leopard habitat at an altitude of over 3000m up the mountains.

Traditional snow leopard habitat, the Annapurna region of Nepal. Researchers have found common leopard goes as high as 3000m. Photo Sibylle Noras.

Traditional snow leopard habitat, the Annapurna region of Nepal. Researchers have found common leopard goes as high as 3000m. Photo Sibylle Noras.

The SLC reports that a village chief from the region named Ghirmi is aware that common leopard can be found in the area and that their domestic livestock is a target.

“Yak calves are the target,” Ghirmi says, “sometimes it is the snow leopard that kills the animals while other times it may be the common leopard. But villagers always blame the snow leopard because they do not believe common leopards go up to 3000m.

“Thanks to Snow Leopard Conservancy we now know that common leopards also visit our mountains!” Ghirmi says. “I showed villagers the leopard photos,” he explains. “It caught sceptics by surprise.”

As climate change brings the upper limits of forests higher due to temperature increases and less snow, it may be that common leopards will go higher in search of prey and thus overlap even more with snow leopards. Does this mean snow leopards will lose more habitats? What impact would common leopards have on snow leopards? Would aggression occur between the two and if so how would the snow leopard, known to be the lesser aggressive cat, fare? Would there be enough prey for both cats to survive in this area? More study needs to be done to answer these questions, protect herders’ livestock and ensure the future of both of these magnificent leopards.

The beautiful Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyz Republic, venue for this week's meeting on the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program. Delegates from all 12 snow leopard range countries are continuing work to secure the future of snow leopards and their habitat.

The beautiful Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyz Republic, venue for this week’s meeting on the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program. Delegates from all 12 snow leopard range countries are continuing work to secure the future of snow leopards and their habitat.

“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 the next 6 years to save snow leopards and their fragile ecosystems. This was an awesome event bringing in many partners like the large snow leopard conservation organisations, World Bank, the UNDP, INTERPOL and more.

Now this week, again in Kyrgyz Republic but this time in the beautiful lake region of Issyk Kul, a follow up meeting of delegates from all snow leopard countries starts the big journey of making the Declaration a reality.

The countries have put together the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), an important document outlining all the snow leopard threats in each country and the potential actions of the countries to stop the decline in the cat’s numbers. This is already a huge achievement by all representatives.

Bishkek Forum in October 2013 under the leadership of H.E. President Atambaevin of Kyrgyz Republic.

Bishkek Forum in October 2013 under the leadership of H.E. President Atambaevin of Kyrgyz Republic. Photo by Sibylle Noras.

The objectives of this meeting are to identify the areas where the larger snow leopard populations exist. These areas are called ‘secure snow leopard landscapes’ and are defined as “those that contain at least 100 breeding age snow leopards conserved with the involvement of local communities, support adequate and secure prey populations, and have functional connectivity to other snow leopard landscapes, some of which cross international boundaries.”

In other words delegates need to agree on those areas which would benefit from more protection to ensure sustainable snow leopard breeding pairs into the future. Many of these areas are of course across different country borders and require what is called transboundary co-operation. Snow leopards tend to disregard country borders when they cross large ranges at high altitudes in the remote mountains so having countries agree to work together is vital.

As with all such big multilateral initiatives all the players must also agree on issues like funding sources, implementation timeframes, and performance measures and so on.

We wish all the delegates the best of luck in their work in this week’s important meeting. It is yet another milestone in the vital journey to secure a viable future for snow leopards and their important habitats for all time.

Reminder – snow leopard range countries are – Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

For geography buffs, Lake Issyk Kul is the second largest mountain lake in the world. Photo by NASA from space.

For geography buffs, Lake Issyk Kul is the second largest mountain lake in the world. Photo by NASA from space.

For Geography buffs -Lake Issyk Kul lies at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft) and is the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca in South America. It is 182 kilometres (113 mi) long and 60 kilometres (37 mi) wide, covering an area of 6,236 square kilometres (2,408 sq mi).

 

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 snow leopard conservationists use the word “prusten” for the sound the cat makes. The word is German and means to puff and to blow. It is also sometimes called “chuffing” and sounds like a cross between a meow and a roar.

The sound is enough for the cats to communicate to each other in the wild when looking for mates.

Listen to a recording of a wild snow leopard in Russia –

And hear a snow leopard chuffing in a zoo.

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 level. It is very rare for snow leopards to wander into areas of human habitat and the report states this cat may have been looking for food.
The cat was taken to a local veterinarian clinic but the report doesn’t tell us if the cat has been released or what condition it is in now. We hope to get more news over the coming weeks.