Today the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) announced the initiation in Mongolia of the first ever long-term comprehensive ecological study of snow leopards. The program is a collaborative effort involving SLT, Snow Leopard Conservation Fund (Mongolia), Felidae Conservation Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Mongolia’s Ministry of Nature and Environment, and the Mongolian State University of Agriculture. Dr. Tom McCarthy, Science and Conservation Director of SLT, stated, “Although there have been several valuable studies of the species to date, most were short-term or at most 4 or 5 years in duration, and such short-term efforts simply cannot provide the understanding we need to conserve these cats.” Dr. George Schaller (WCS), who conducted some of the first field studies of snow leopards, concurred, saying, “Long-term studies of tigers and lions have provided important insights into the lives of these cats and their prey. Now, for the first time, the snow leopard is the long overdue focus of such an invaluable effort, one that will, I am certain, contribute greatly to the conservation of this beautiful cat and its mountain environment.” The Mongolian study will run for a minimum of 10 years, and likely for 20 years or more.
Mongolia was selected as the site of the study because the country hosts the second largest population of the endangered cats, with 1,000 or more likely remaining out of a global population of 3,500 to 7,000. SLT also maintains one of its largest conservation programs for the species in Mongolia, using an innovative community-based approach to work with local people in over 27 communities in 7 provinces all along the country’s Altai mountains, a snow leopard stronghold. Over 400 herder families participate in a handicraft-based economic incentive program, coupled with anti-poaching efforts, to conserve a predator they once viewed only as a threat to livestock. The large snow leopard population, in conjunction with a well established conservation program, made Mongolia a logical choice for the new research effort.
In addition to being the world’s leading snow leopard conservation organization, SLT has long been at the forefront of snow leopard research. SLT recently teamed with two leading conservation geneticists, Dr. Lisette Waits (University of Idaho) and Dr. Warren Johnson (National Cancer Institute), to develop molecular genetic tools for individual identification of snow leopards from hair and fecal samples, thus allowing non-invasive population monitoring. SLT was the first to broadly apply these methods in the field in China, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Mongolia, with encouraging results. “Research is critical to planning appropriate conservation actions and then measuring their outcome,” offered SLT’s Executive Director, Brad Rutherford, “and we employ a variety of cutting-edge research tools.” The new Mongolia study will utilize a suite of methodologies, such as genetics and automated cameras, to learn more about these rare and elusive cats.
While “non-invasive” methods hold much promise, there are many fundamental questions about snow leopard ecology and behavior that cannot be answered without the use of radio-collars. Recent technological advances will allow the use of GPS collars in this study. These collars will calculate each cat’s exact position multiple times a day, and then relay that information to researchers via satellite or ground-based radio links. By monitoring several generations of snow leopards in this manner, researchers will gain unprecedented insights on habitat use, movements, dispersal of sub-adults, adult and juvenile mortality rates and causes, intra-specific interactions, and human-snow leopard conflicts. This information will translate directly into improved conservation measures, better assuring the survival of snow leopards range-wide. Furthermore, by validating and improving upon these and other methods, the project will serve as a source for innovative research, monitoring and conservation tools that will be shared with scientists and conservationists across the region and globally.
The planned study will also provide many hands-on opportunities for training of national and international graduate students and professional biologists. A long-term goal of the program is to establish a research and educational facility in the South Gobi that will serve as a regional center for advanced training in field research and conservation. At least 3 graduate students, one each from Mongolia, Argentina, and Sweden, are expected to be among the first group of young scientists participating in the study. These students will be working alongside staff biologists from Mongolia, India, and the USA, making this a truly international collaboration from the outset.
Education will also be provided to national and provincial government officials, and most importantly to local people. “Conservation education is critical, especially for the people who share these mountains and whose lives are so closely tied to snow leopards” said Zara McDonald, President of Felidae Conservation Fund.
More information will be forthcoming as the program moves forward and will also be available on the Snow Leopard Trust and Felidae Conservation Fund websites.