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Just published, the first ever comprehensive book on the snow leopard.

Just published, the first ever comprehensive book on the snow leopard.

It has been said that it takes extraordinary people to dedicate their lives to this extraordinary cat.

This week has seen great news for snow leopards and the snow leopard community. The first ever comprehensive book on the biology, behavior and conservation status of the snow leopard has just been published and I’m proud to be one of the nearly 200 authors.

Snow leopards are the least studied of the big cats because of their shy, elusive behavior, their superb camouflage and the fact they live in remote and extreme high altitude mountains of Central Asia. Many researchers spend years studying them without seeing one in the wild.

“Snow Leopards,” Part of New Series, “Biodiversity of the World Conservation From Genes to Landscapes” was edited by Dr. Tom McCarthy and Dr. David Mallon, recognised snow leopard experts with more than 50 years of collective experience in research and conservation of the species.

Wild snow leopard A snow leopard in its remote habitat, caught on camera trap in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo SLT).

Wild snow leopard A snow leopard in its remote habitat, caught on camera trap in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo SLT).

“This book is the collective work of a cadre of dedicated and passionate individuals who believe the snow leopard deserves forever to be a living icon of Asia’s high peaks,” said co-editor Dr. McCarthy, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Program for Panthera. “With nearly 200 authors and 47 chapters, “Snow Leopards” covers a wide range of topics from ecology, threats, conservation success stories, new research tools and technologies and country status reports, concluding with an outlook for the species’ future. I am sure this book will be of interest to everyone from armchair naturalists, students and range-state decision makers, to seasoned snow leopard conservationists.”

“Only in recent years have advances such as satellite telemetry and compact camera traps capable of taking high-quality night shots while surviving extreme low temperatures allowed scientists to begin to unravel the mysteries behind the snow leopard’s life,” said Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientist Dr. Stephane Ostrowski.

Remote Snow Leopard habitat in Sangjiangyuan Reserve Qinghai province. ( Photo Shan Shui).

Remote Snow Leopard habitat in Sangjiangyuan Reserve Qinghai province. ( Photo Shan Shui).

Peter Zahler, Coordinator for the WCS Snow Leopard Program said, “This is an incredibly important book.  (It) will serve as the go-to reference work on snow leopards for decades to come.”

Recently snow leopard scientists have found some evidence that suggests the big cats may be more common than previously thought.  New estimates focused on areas described as ’Snow Leopard Conservation Units,’ covering only 44 percent of the snow leopard’s extensive range (which extends over roughly 3 million km2 or 1,158,306 square miles) suggests that there may be between 4,678 and 8,745 snow leopards just in these units. This is higher than previous estimates for the entire global population, which had previously been thought to be only between 3,920 and 7,500.

However, although numbers may be higher than previously thought, threats to snow leopards such as habitat encroachment, human conflict, poaching and illegal parts trade are on the increase and the long term future of the species is not assured.

“Snow Leopards” was published by Elsevier, a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services.

Famous snow leopard conservationist and Vice President of Panthera, Dr George Schaller has written to the Mongolian government asking the decision to allow killing of 4 snow leopards to be overturned. Photo WCS.

Famous snow leopard conservationist and Vice President of Panthera, Dr George Schaller has written the Foreword to the first ever comprehensive book on Snow Leopards. Photo WCS.

Congratulations to Tom McCarthy and David Mallon and the 200 authors who made this seminal and important book possible. With the data and knowledge published here for the first time, researchers, conservationists, NGO’s and government authorities are better poised to collaborate to ensure this beautiful cat’s existence in the wild.

One of the most famed snow leopard researchers and conservationists of all, Dr George Schaller wrote the Foreword. He quotes this beautiful passage –

“I am a true son of Snowy Mountains
Watching over solitude, persisting
Through all temporal stages
Crowded among hardened waves of boulders
I stand guard here.”
From “I, Snow Leopard” by Jidi Majiya.

The book can be purchased here.









Rare camera trap photo taken in Noyon soum region. (c) Mongolia Snow Leopard (Irbis) Foundation / SLT.

Rare camera trap photo taken in Noyon soum region. (c) Mongolia Snow Leopard (Irbis) Foundation / SLT.

We just have to share this rare and amazing photograph of two wild snow leopards taken by a remote camera trap. It is as if they are performing a dance especially for us to watch. We often see agility, dance and play in snow leopards in zoos but this is the first time such a photograph has captured wild snow leopards and we congratulate the team at the Mongolia Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation and the Snow Leopard Trust who are doing long term camera trapping snow leopard conservation in the mountains of Mongolia.

The camera trap photo taken at Noyon soum which is adjacent to the Tost mountains
For more on snow leopard conservation and research in Mongolia read our recent interview with Dr Bariushaa Munkhtsog of the Mongolia Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation.

Shyngyz, the 25 year old snow leopard in Tama Zoo. A photo by his number one fan, keen snow leopard photographer Steve Tracey.

Shyngyz, the 25 year old snow leopard in Tama Zoo. A photo by his number one fan, keen snow leopard photographer Steve Tracy.

Shynghyz, one of the snow leopards in Tama Zoo, Tokyo, is most probably the oldest snow leopard in the world. Steve Tracy who lives in Tokyo, is one of Shynghyz’s biggest fans and photographs him often. Tracy says “Shynghyz is still going strong, and with any luck, will turn 26 in December. Quite a feat!”

Apparently Shynghyz was captured in Kazakhstan in Central Asia’s mountains, when he was just 18 months old. Nowadays it is illegal to capture wild snow leopards but sometimes, although rarely it still happens, usually when villagers come across young cubs they assume to be in danger and capture them for what they believe is their own good.

Ena, Shyngyz's four year old daughter, now going to Toronto Zoo. (Photo Tama Zoo.)

Ena, Shyngyz’s four year old daughter, now going to Toronto Zoo. (Photo Tama Zoo.)

Shynghyz, whose name comes from the word ‘Ghengis’ as in Ghengis Khan, spent 10 years at Almaty Zoo in the capital of Kazakhstan and in 2000 he was sent to Tama Zoo in Tokyo which has been his home ever since.

In December this regal old cat will be 26 years old, an amazing age. He has fathered nine cubs at Tama Zoo, most of which have been sent to zoos far and wide. His cubs were sent to zoos in Europe and Central Asia as part of the global zoo snow leopard breeding program, but Ena, his 4 year old daughter, is the first of his cubs to go to North America. Last week she was moved from Tama Zoo to Toronto Zoo which will be her home and where keepers hope she will breed.

Steve Tracy says “Shyngyz is the much loved icon of Tama zoo, and fingers crossed, he’ll be around for a while yet.”

Read more on what zoos are doing to protect their snow leopards. Read about medical care and enrichment activities which enable this species to survive to such an old age in comparison to their wild cousins who only live to ten or eleven years of age.

WFN logoIn the last year the prestigious Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) has awarded 600,000 UK pounds to conservationists. And once again they have supported an important snow leopard conservation program for which the snow leopard community would like to extend thanks.

Working in developing countries where pressure on natural resources is high, the challenges conservationists face are immense; from fighting bureaucracy, crime and corruption – often at great personal risk – to protecting habitat, resolving human-wildlife conflict and developing sustainable alternatives for local communities.

Wild snow leopard caught on remote camera in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo SLT).

Wild snow leopard caught on remote camera in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo SLT).

“The Whitley Fund for Nature is unique. It doesn’t put its own people on the ground but seeks out local leaders who are already succeeding. It puts its money where it really counts, where every penny counts” says Sir David Attenborough one of its Trustees.

WFN has provided nearly £12 million of funding and training over the last 20 years. This money has recognised more than 170 conservation leaders in over 70 countries and supported a range of projects to conserve endangered species that are founded on scientific evidence and community engagement.

The snow leopard project is supported under the 2014, WFN 3-year grant called Partnership Funding which funds the work of 4 conservation heroes based in India, Turkey, Argentina and Colombia. The funds are to help save some of the world’s most threatened and charismatic species and their natural homes, including snow leopards, penguins, river dolphins and some of far Eastern Europe’s last large carnivores, wolves and bears.

Charu Mishra of the Snow Leopard Trust in Spiti. (Photo SLT).

Charu Mishra of the Snow Leopard Trust in Spiti. (Photo SLT).

WFN is supporting the program “ Protecting endangered snow leopards and their habitat across their range” in India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, lead by Charudutt Mishra, Snow Leopard Trust (SLT). Here he reports on the program so far.

For the first time, governments in all 12 snow leopard range countries are coming together to agree actions to conserve these big cats and their habitat.

· Working with range country governments, SLT have identified 23 priority landscapes covering almost 25% of snow leopard habitat to be protected by 2020 and ensure populations remain connected.

· A programme has been launched in collaboration with the government of Kyrgyzstan and community rangers to help combat poaching of snow leopards at the national level.

· In country capacity to conserve snow leopards has been bolstered with the training of young female conservationists as part of the program.

· Over 4,000 herder families have been engaged in community conservation initiatives, such as livestock insurance schemes and handicraft production, which has raised $1million to date.

· More than 1,000 children have been reached through environmental education programs.

· The development of an international snow leopard friendly cashmere industry is being explored.

· 20 snow leopards have been collared to track their movements using GPS satellites, while several pioneering studies have been initiated to shed light on the ecology and behaviour of these elusive animals, and the economic, political and social dynamics surrounding their conservation.

For more information on WFN see their website. Read more on the work of the Snow Leopard Trust.

Snow leopards in Central Asia are  threatened by growing illegal wildlife trade. (Photo WWF.)

Snow leopards in Central Asia are threatened by growing illegal wildlife trade. (Photo WWF.)

Central Asia’s endangered species, including the snow leopard, are under threat from poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Now, countries and international organisations are joining forces to fight these crimes.

On September 17-18, 2015, representatives of enforcement agencies and several government and non-government organizations from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation will come together in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a two day long workshop to assess the current status and understand the opportunities and gaps in control and monitoring of wildlife crime at the national, regional and international level.

“Together we can save the endangered wildlife of Central Asia”, says Sabir Atadjanov, Director of the State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry under the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic and host of the workshop.

The participants will develop a common strategy on how to best utilize the expertise of all relevant agencies and tackle the problem in a joint effort.

Snow leopard and other wildlife trade in furs and body parts. (Photo WWF.)

Snow leopard and other wildlife trade in furs and body parts. (Photo WWF.)

Poaching and illegal wildlife trade (IWT), in the recent times have led to local and global extinction of several species such as the tiger in many parts of its range, Sumatran rhino and Pyrenean ibex. Law enforcement agencies in the area and around the world have long considered these issues to be low priority and haven’t devoted sufficient attention and resources to them.

The illegal trade in snow leopard, its body parts, and derivatives, and its prey pose a serious threat to conservation of wildlife in the high altitude mountain ecosystems of Asia. The Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) as well as the Snow Leopard Survival Strategy (2014) list illegal wildlife trade as one of the key threats facing this endangered cat and its prey species in the mountain ecosystems of its range 12 countries.

GSLEP pic March 2015This workshop, held in close collaboration with Interpol’s Project Predator, is aimed at understanding the extent of illegal trade in the region, assess existing legal systems, identify loopholes and evaluate conviction rates. Participants will also work to improve collaboration and information sharing across all organisations as well as draw up a strategic plan for monitoring and enforcing wildlife crime.
Key partners in the event are – the State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry under the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, along with the GSLEP Secretariat, the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program – UNDP in Kyrgyzstan (GEF/SGP-UNDP), Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Interpol.

The workshop continues the work of the 12 snow leopard range countries following the adoption of the Bishkek Declaration on the Conservation of the Snow Leopard and the GSLEP Program at the Global Forum on Snow Leopard Conservation held in October 2013 under the leadership of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic Almazbek Atambayev.

The GSLEP Program aims to ensure the long-term survival of the snow leopard in its natural ecosystem. It is a joint initiative of the governments of the range countries, international organisations, civil society and the private sector.

More information from GSLEP Secretariat.

The 2016 Indianapolis Prize has announced its 28 nominees for the prestigious $250,000 prize which recognises outstanding research and conservation efforts in the field of wildlife conservation.

Dr Rodney Jackson

Dr Rodney Jackson

The list, while including an incredible range of species, includes three conservationists working with snow leopards, snow leopard habitat and communities. We congratulation Dr Rodney Jackson, Dr Charu Mishra and Jigmet Takpa on their nominations.

Their citations read –

Rodney Jackson, Ph.D.: (Snow Leopard Conservancy) Conducted in-depth radio-tracking studies of snow leopards since the 1980s; dedicated to building local communities’ capacity as key players in conserving the species. Finalist for the 2008, 2010 and 2012 Indianapolis Prize.

Dr Charu Mishra

Dr Charu Mishra

Charudutt Mishra, Ph.D.: (Snow Leopard Trust & Nature Conservation Foundation) Conservation biologist working to protect threatened species and habitats throughout Central Asia, with a focus on the charismatic and endangered snow leopard.

Jigmet Takpa: (Government of Jammu and Kashmir, India) Focused on evidence-based landscape-level conservation programs in Ladakh northern India, resulting in population recovery of snow leopard, Tibetan argali, gazelle and antelope, lynx, Pallas’ cat, Tibetan and black-necked crane; introduced projects and technologies for local communities to regard wildlife as assets rather than threats.

Jigmet Takpa (centre).

Jigmet Takpa (centre).

“The 2016 Indianapolis Prize Nominees represent many of the most significant and accomplished wildlife conservationists in the field today,” said Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, which initiated the Indianapolis Prize. “They are protecting species and creating successful conservation methods that ensure future generations will live in a flourishing and sustainable world. We applaud their accomplishments and encourage individuals, organizations, companies, and governments to join them in advancing animal conservation.”

A Jury will select six finalists and determine a winner to be announced at the next Indianapolis Prize Gala in October 2016.
More on the prize here .

For a full list of all 28 nominees see here .

A video interview in the freezing snow leopard landscape of Sangjiangyuan Nature Reserve on the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai province, China. Researcher Liu Yanlin from Shan Shui (a conservation organisation at Peking University) and Stuart Pimm, President of Saving Species discuss ways to protect the snow leopard in this part of their habitat.

Shan Shui is working with local people in the Sangjiangyuan Nature Reserve which is one of the largest protected areas in the world. The focus of Shan Shui’s work is to find ways to protect the snow leopard and other wildlife in this very remote high altitude landscape, where herders and wildlife can often come into conflict. The herders have yaks and other domestic livestock which can be attractive to hungry snow leopards in search of a meal. Ideally the snow leopards should prey on wild blue sheep of which there are plenty in this region.

Liu Yanlin and Shan Shui found through recent research that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in this region also have an important role to play in protecting snow leopards.

The nearby mountains are considered sacred by the local people and monks and Liu Yanlin and the Shan Shui Director, Professor Lu Zhi believe these monasteries may be “much more effective in protecting this area than are reserves because (the protection) is based on people’s morals and principles. Shan Shui is committed to working to combined religion and science to solve the current and coming threats to this region.”
Full story National Geographic.

Snow leopard habitat at 4500m in Ladakh, India. (Photo by Sibylle Noras.)

Snow leopard habitat at 4500m in Ladakh, India. (Photo by Sibylle Noras.)

Because snow leopards successfully live at such high altitudes (3500m to 6500m) for many years researchers thought the haemoglobin of this species was in some way adapted so it could carry more oxygen than the haemoglobins of other big cats.
But a study published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology revealed that is not the case.

Research by an international team from universities in USA and Denmark looked at blood samples from African lions, a tiger, one leopard, four snow leopards, a panther and some domestic cats. It showed snow leopard blood is no better prepared for the extreme challenges of high altitudes than other big cats and even our domestic cats.

Snow leopard looking into remote camera in Pakistan. Photo (c) Shafqat Hussain.

Snow leopard looking into remote camera in Pakistan. Photo (c) Shafqat Hussain.

In other words “the snow leopards’ haemoglobin is equally as inefficient as the haemoglobins of all other big cats and the haemoglobins are structurally and functionally almost identical to those of house cats.” However, the researchers believe snow leopards compensate for the poor oxygen capacity of their blood by simply breathing harder and thus survive well in the high altitude habitat.

One of the authors of the study, Jan Janecka from Duquesne University, USA said, ‘We still don’t know how snow leopards adapt (to life at high altitudes). ‘Our study raised more questions than it answered.’

More in the article by Kathryn Knight.

Read the original research article here – “Genetically based low oxygen affinities of felid hemoglobins: lack of biochemical adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia in the snow leopard.”.

wwf global tiger day 2015On Global Tiger Day we celebrate the relationship between tigers and snow leopards. Both cats are endangered and we congratulate everyone working to give them a sustainable future in the wild.

Scientists have for a long time classified all cats into a particular family called Felidae. The art or science of classification is called taxonomy and at the sub-family level there is the classification of Panthera which consists of all the larger cats, including lions, tigers, leopards and clouded leopards.

tiger and snow leopard eyesFor many years they thought the snow leopard was not related to any of these because it cannot roar (and all the others can). In fact the differences between snow leopards and other large cats were thought to be substantial enough that snow leopards were placed in their own genus (Uncia). The snow leopard’s scientific name for many years was Uncia unica. But in 2010 studies found that the closest relative to the snow leopard is in fact the tiger (Panthera tigris).

This means that snow leopards are closely related to tigers on a close branch of the evolutionary tree and they have a common ancestor. It is believed they diverged from that ancestor about 2 million years ago which in evolutionary terms is not that long ago.

A genetics expert friend of ours in fact suggested you could say that tigers and snow leopards are cousins. This is interesting as the studies found that the relationship was closer between tigers and snow leopards than even snow leopards and common leopards (Panthera pardus). Scientists know that the snow leopard’s morphology (branch of biology dealing with the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features) is very different from leopards. As is their behaviour and ecology (the relationship with their environment.)

time magazine cats threatenedSo much for the word leopard. Today snow leopards have a new classification to reflect this recently discovered relationship, which is Panthera uncia.
It is also strange to think the relationship is close because of course the habitat of tigers and snow leopards is so different. One lives in high mountains and the other in jungles. Although one tiger, the Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), does inhabit snow-covered regions.

So today, on July 29th, let’s celebrate the wonder and beauty of tigers and snow leopards and their habitat. Let’s keep them in our hearts and minds and support them in any way we can to ensure they remain in the wild for many generations to come.

Dr Bariushaa Munkhtsog. (Photo B. Munkhtsog).

Dr Bariushaa Munkhtsog. (Photo B. Munkhtsog).

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.

Dr Rodney Jackson and Dr Bariushaa Munkhtsog with radio collared snow leopard in 2008. (Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy.)

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.

Radio collared snow leopard in Mongolia. (Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy.)

Radio collared snow leopard in Mongolia. (Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy.)

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. “

A snow leopard cub cub on ger roof. (Photo taken with cell phone by D  Ganbat and family.)

A snow leopard cub cub on ger roof. (Photo taken with cell phone by D Ganbat and family.)

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.