In the early morning of 19 August a young adult male snow leopard was captured and fitted with a GPS collar in Mongolia‘s South Gobi Province as part of a new long-term ecological study of the rare and endangered cats. The collar is designed to collect highly accurate locations for the cat three times each day using a GPS unit embedded in the collar, and then immediately relay the data to researchers via the Globalstar satellite phone system. This is the first time such technology has been utilized in the study of these endangered cats.
The snow leopard, which the research team named Aztai (meaning “Lucky” in Mongolian) becomes the first subject of a collaborative study being undertaken by the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), Panthera, Felidae Conservation Fund (FCF), the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and Environment (MNE), and the Biological Institute of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (MAS).
The study was launched in May of this year with the establishment of a research center in the Tost Mountains, which are part of the Altai range. The study site, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, supports one of the richest populations of snow leopards in Mongolia, a country which itself boasts the second highest number of the rare cats anywhere in their vast Asian range. For the past three months an international team of biologists from Mongolia, India and Argentina has surveyed the area’s valleys and ridgelines using automated digital cameras to establish a minimum population estimate and to identify the travel routes where the cats might most easily be captured for the study. More than 260 pictures of snow leopards were analyzed revealing at least four cats that use an area within 30 km2 of the research center.
In early August additional team members arrived from Sweden, Austria and the USA to initiate capturing and collaring. Seventeen foot hold snares were deployed, each with a radio transmitter attached to quickly alert the team of a tripped snare and a potential capture, a measure that greatly reduces the chances of injury to the animal. Exactly one week after the capture work was initiated, a signal from a snare just 300 meters from camp was received during an early morning radio check. Two Mongolian SLT biologists, L. Purevjav and S. Purevsuren, were the first on the scene and found the 36.5 kg (80 lb) cat lying calmly at the base of a cliff. “It was so beautiful, it’s hard to explain how exciting it was to first see him”, said Purevjav of finding the cat. The sedation, conducted by Swedish Ph.D. student Orjan Johansson with assistance from Austrian veterinarian Dr. Chris Walzer, went smoothly. In less than an hour the collar was attached, the immobilizing drug reversed, and the handsome cat had retreated silently back into the mountains.
The high-tech collar is programmed to operate for 13 months before it automatically opens and falls off. Researchers will then retrieve the collar and download any data that was not successfully uplinked via satellite phone. The comprehensive study, which is expected to run for 15 years or more, is the first of its kind and is designed to yield unprecedented data on the ecology of an animal that until now has been extremely difficult to research due to its secretive nature and remote habitat. Only with the type and amount of information that this study will provide can conservation efforts for snow leopards have a chance of succeeding.
For additional background information on this study and frequent project updates visit the websites of the collaborating organizations:
www.snowleopard.org <http://www.snowleopard.org> www.panthera.org <http://www.panthera.org> www.felidaefund.org <http://www.felidaefund.org> www.mne.gov.mn