Forget Apple, Here’s the Real Snow Leopard

From and By Brandon Keim September 8, 2009 | Even as Apple’s newest operating system puts snow leopards on desktops around the world, the real animal fights for survival in the mountain wilderness of Central Asia. Declared endangered in 1972, between 3,500 and 7,000 cats remain in the wild. Their numbers are thought to be dwindling, though exact figures are hard to come by. Snow leopards are solitary, elusive and perfectly suited to their harsh homelands; researchers who study them can go for years without seeing one. In 2008, a consortium of scientists and conservation groups launched the first long-term snow leopard study. Using camera traps and GPS-enabled collars, they hope to gather basic information about the animals’ range and behavior, and use this information to better protect them. talked to Tom McCarthy, program director for Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust, about their work. Camera traps set beside known snow leopard trails, and triggered when an infrared beam is crossed, have captured thousands of images. Individual animals are then identified by their coloration patterns. Unlike older camera traps, the latest are digital and shoot every half-second or so, providing movies like the one above. GPS collars were first used in the early 1990s, but had to be abandoned. Their relatively short-range signals required researchers carrying hand-held receivers to follow the cats on foot. A difficult proposition in the best of circumstances, it was made even harder by signals dropping when cats ducked into a valley or around a mountain. The latest GPS collars are more powerful and reliable, and transmit location coordinates via embedded satellite links. “It’s essentially calling us three times a day to let us know where it’s at,” said McCarthy. “It’s giving us data that we couldn’t get any other way.” Movement records provided by the collars are providing important ecological information about the species. “We still have huge blank spots in terms understanding basic ecology and land use, how the cats relate to each other, how much distance they keep between each other, how they interact with humans how close they come to livestock,” said McCarthy. Another useful trick involves taking gene readings from their poop. “We can take genetic fingerprints of their feces, and identify individual animals,” said McCarthy. “But it’s still relatively expensive because of the cost of gene testing.” Along with technology, conservation strategies are also improving. In some regions, the Snow Leopard Trust has worked with villagers to sell their handicrafts to western markets in exchange for not killing the cats, which can threaten livestock. They’ve traded livestock vaccinations for leopard protection, and insured farm animals against attacks. The programs seem to be working, but data from the cameras and collars should give researchers a better idea of where to concentrate their efforts. Other threats to snow leopards include poaching, habitat loss and loss of prey. Even if people leave the cats alone, they can still disrupt the web of life on which the leopards rely. If snow leopards ever go extinct in the wild, they could be bred in zoos. But it’s not likely that zoo-raised animals will ever be able to survive in their ancestral homes. “Cubs stay with their mother for two years to learn the land,” said McCarthy. “It’s a real question whether you could put them in the wild. Asked how it felt to see snow leopards as part of a marketing strategy, McCarthy said that it was unusual. “It’s amazing to be able to be able to see these cats in person,” he said. “I spent seven years between studies, much of it in snow leopard habitat, and never even saw one. But as Peter Matthiesen wrote years ago, just knowing they’re out there is enough.”

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