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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.


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 sheep’s pen in Qiangtang Nature Reserve. Staff from the local forestry department captured the cat which they then released further away from the herders location back into the wild.
In many cases in the past a snow leopard found like this may have been killed in retaliation for the herder’s loss. It is indeed wonderful that in this case the herder, although having lost some of his livelihood, did not harm the cat.

Jonny Hanson in the mountains of Nepal. (Photo J. Hanson).

Jonny Hanson in the mountains of Nepal. (Photo by Maurice Schutgens.

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 the story of the work with zoo patrons in Ireland. This new approach is hoping to see how zoo visitors engage with conservation of some of the animals they see in the zoo collection.

Welcome Jonny to “Saving Snow Leopards” website and blog.

“Thanks Sibylle. In the way of introduction I’d like to say I’m doing my research in partnership with Dublin Zoo (home to the only Irish snow leopards) and I think I’m the only Irish snow leopard researcher. I’ll be regularly blogging and tweeting my work as I try to engage members of the public (mainly Dublin Zoo Facebook and Twitter followers.)

Building on existing research and the Snow Leopard Survival Strategy, my study seeks to build the most comprehensive picture so far of people’s conflicts with and attitudes to snow leopards, and how these are affected by factors like poverty, gender and religion.  The study also looks at whether families who are less dependent on livestock for their income, and who are included, rather than excluded, from managing local conservation issues, are more likely to have better relations with snow leopards.

Mountains of Nepal, snow leopard habitat.

Mountains of Nepal, key snow leopard habitat in Annapurna range. Photo Sibylle Noras.

I chose Annapurna / Everest for my study for a number of reasons. From the inception of the idea I sought the advice of Dr Rodney Jackson from the Snow Leopard Conservancy and Dr Som Ale in order to design a study that would be useful and fill information gaps. As well as having Annapurna and Everest recommended to me by them, there is a mixture of different livelihoods (ie tourism and pastoralism) at both sites, the impact of which on relationships with snow leopards I wanted to examine.  They also have contrasting conservation management approaches and I also wanted to look at how this affected things.

So how did I become interested in snow leopard research? Well, I’ve had a lifelong passion for animals, especially the cat family.  As I grew older a focus on animals morphed into a focus on biodiversity conservation and then onto sustainability, as I began to realise the interconnection of social, economic and environmental issues.  Besides
that, I love mountains and farming so my research on conflict between herders and snow leopards brings all of that together.  I’ve also had the privilege to work with quite a few cat species in captivity, which only cemented that original childhood fascination.

Snow leopards at Dublin Zoo in Ireland. Photo Dublin Zoo.

Snow leopards at Dublin Zoo in Ireland. Photo Dublin Zoo.

As to the role zoos can play in snow leopard conservation? Zoos have an incredible ability to inspire.  Having worked in living collections and as a museum educator, I’ve realised the power of nature to enthral young and old alike.  By maintaining genetically diverse and healthy populations of snow leopards, and other species, zoos can reach a very broad audience with the sheer wonder of the natural world, as well our need to respect and conserve it.  They can also provide funding, communications and technical assistance to support snow leopard conservation professionals, especially from range countries.

I’m not actually a biologist by training but a historian and social scientist.  I wondered at the time if that would prove detrimental to my plans to be a conservationist but, in hindsight, it’s given me a different, more holistic, perspective. That sort of interdisciplinary focus is really important for 21st century snow leopard conservation.”

Thanks Jonny and good luck with the study.Readers can follow Jonny’s work as he blogs regularly from the field http://snowleopardresearchnepal.wordpress.com/

Vale Peter Matthiessen 1927-2014.

Vale Peter Matthiessen 1927-2014.

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 search for the snow leopard one frozen winter in Dolpo, Nepal, as he joins George Schaller on expedition. He writes poignantly of his wife’s recent death from cancer and his quest for a higher Zen awareness.
This beautiful book did much to introduce me to the people of the high Himalayas and to inspire me to work for snow leopard advocacy and conservation. I will always be thankful to Peter for that.
Peter never did see the snow leopard but wrote so beautifully in this book – “That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountains – that is enough.”
Read more at New York Times http://nyti.ms/1isp4qE

May Peter roam with the snow leopards forever in the far realms of the high Asian mountains.