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Meeting Tom McCarthy, leader of long term snow leopard study

Dr Tom McCarthy

Dr Tom McCarthy and snow leopard Aztai in Mongolia. Photo Panthera/SLT

This week I caught up with Dr Tom McCarthy, the Snow Leopard program director for Panthera. Many of you will know Tom’s work in Mongolia, the first long term study of snow leopards in their wild habitat, which is having amazing success with the number of cats it is tracking in the mountains of the South Gobi.

I met up with Tom for lunch at the fabulous Pike Place Market in Seattle. This is one of Tom’s favourite places in his home town. It was a busy day, and lots of locals and tourists alike were watching the guys selling fish entertain the crowd by throwing huge salmon at each other. I love farmers markets and Tom showed me around the fish stalls with the largest crabs (jumbo King Alaskan) and salmon I’ve ever seen in my life. There were beautiful vegetable stalls with exotic flower-like mushrooms and huge containers of fat raspberries and strawberries. Members of Seattle’s Hmong community sold buckets of beautiful flowers, the dahlias which are now in season

Over lunch we discussed the future of snow leopards and Tom’s work. “I started my conservation career studying brown bears in Alaska in the early 1980’s. I had to capture bears that were causing problems in towns and then release them elsewhere. I knew I’d been doing that work too long when one morning my two young sons ran out of the house to the car and passed three cages with bears in them without even batting an eyelid.”

Pike Place market. Seattle's Hmong community grow and sell these magnificent dahlias.

In 1992 he worked with Dr George Schaller on a snow leopard project in Mongolia and was hooked. “George always said that we had to do long term work on snow leopards to get the data we needed. We knew so little about these cats.  A long term project like ten years was needed and now, luckily, that’s what we’ve got“

Tom’s work in Mongolia formed the basis for his Ph.D. and with this work he became the first biologist to use radio-collars to study snow leopards.

He’s delighted with the success of the work in Mongolia and credits his student, Orjan from Sweden with much of its success. “Orjan’s a natural for this work. It’s hard, it’s tough but he’s doing so well. He’s going to have captured more snow leopards than me,” he laughs. “In fact with three more cats, which I know he’ll get, this study will have collared more cats than all other previous studies combined.” Tom is justifiably proud of this landmark study.

The largest crabs I have ever seen. Pike Place market, Seattle

“The information we get from GPS-enabled collars gives us more information about snow leopard behavious, all of which we need to better protect them. We’ve taken thousands of pictures with digital camera traps too. And we can identify individual cats by their rosette patterns; each one is unique when you know what to look for.”

Tom spends a lot of time in the field and I was very lucky to catch him between trips to China, Mongolia and Tajikistan. He also spends time in Manhattan, Panthera’s headquarters. Panthera is the cat conservation nonprofit founded by Thomas Kaplan. “Thomas is an amazing guy. He and his wife founded Panthera a few years ago, They donated a lot of money because they asked themselves, what’s it going to take to save tigers, to save beautiful endangered cats like snow leopards? They are so committed and hope more people will join them. “

We talked a bit about how I got interested in snow leopards and I found out that one of the people responsible for me getting involved back in the 1990’s when I did an Earthwatch project , is  Joe Fox,  a good friend of Tom’s. The snow leopard world may be a small one but there are heaps of people dedicating their lives to saving these cats in the wild and Tom is one whose work will have major implications. It was a pleasure and a privilege to meet him.

Follow Tom’s remarkable long term snow leopard project in Mongolia on the Snow Leopard Trust blog.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Rachel March 29, 2012, 12:47 am

    I am a 6th grader doing a biographical study on Tom McCarthy. I can not find his date of birth anywhere. Is there anyone who can help me with this? If so, email me at my teacher’s address (listed above).

  • Sibylle March 29, 2012, 12:07 pm

    sorry I can’t find it either, maybe you could contact him at Panthera where he is Director of Snow Leopard programs.

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