First Snow Leopards Collared in Afghanistan

Wildlife Conservation Society –

WAKHAN CORRIDOR, AFGHANISTAN, (July 17, 2012) – Two snow leopards were captured, fitted with satellite collars, and released for the first time in Afghanistan by a team of Wildlife Conservation Society conservationists and Afghan veterinarians conducting research during a recent expedition.

The team successfully captured and released the male snow leopards on May 27 and June 8 respectively. Each cat was weighed, measured, fitted with a Vectronix satellite collar, and DNA samples were taken. After DNA samples, the healthy snow leopards were released and headed up the Hindu Kush Mountains in good condition. The big cats will be tracked by WCS to better understand their behavior and range. So far, the first snow leopard, Pahlawan, has travelled more than 125 kilometers; while the second cat, Khani Wakhai, has travelled more than 153 kilometers.

The veterinary team, including WCS’s Dr. Stephane Ostrowski and two Afghan colleagues Dr. Ali Madad and Dr Hafizullah Noori, conducted the tranquilizing process at the capture sites along with Nat Geo WILD’s Boone Smith, an expert tracker who traveled to Afghanistan for the project with the Nat Geo WILD film crew.

The work was generously supported by the National Geographic Society, Nat Geo WILD and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

An adult snow leopard stands about two feet at the shoulder and weighs between 60 and 120 pounds. The snow leopard is an alpine rock-climbing specialist with large paws that are ideally adapted to both rocky terrain and deep snow drifts and thick fur to stay warm.

David Lawson, WCS Afghanistan Country Director, said: “These captures are sensational. They are also a real tribute to the knowledge of the local community rangers and the success of our recent camera trapping efforts, which enabled the team to select spots that were known to be frequented by snow leopards.”

The range of the snow leopard includes about 2 million square kilometers across 12 nations in Asia from Russia to Nepal. It is the apex predator and a flagship species for one of the last great wilderness regions on earth – the spectacular mountain ranges of Asia, including the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Pamir, Tien Shan, and Altai ranges.

The entire process was documented by a Nat Geo WILD television crew for a world premiere special Snow Leopards of Afghanistan premiering this December on Nat Geo WILD during the third annual Big Cat Week, an extension of the Cause An Uproar campaign, dedicated to saving the world’s big cats.

Despite survival skills such as spectacular leaping ability and coloring that camouflages them to near invisibility on the rocky alpine slopes of their native habitat, the snow leopard faces threats that are bringing this species closer to extinction. Snow leopards have been categorized as an Endangered Species on the IUCN’s Red List since 1972, and the species is listed as endangered by almost all range countries. Despite these listings, snow leopard populations are still thought to be dwindling across most of their range. Some 3,000 to 7,500 individuals are thought to exist.

There are five major threats facing snow leopards in the wild: poaching, especially for the skins but also for the traditional medicinal trade; loss of natural wild prey (mostly wild sheep and goats, but also marmots and smaller prey); retaliatory killing by shepherds and villagers when snow leopards switch to livestock as the only available alternative food source; general disturbance of habitat as people increasingly move into snow leopard ranges; and lack of awareness by local communities and governments of the rapid disappearance of snow leopards and the need for improved enforcement both in and outside protected areas.

Peter Zahler, WCS Deputy Director of Asia Programs, said: “The information garnered from the tagging will assist researchers as they learn more about the range, behavior, movements, and habitat used by snow leopards. This information in turn will help us in our partnership with the Afghan Government and local communities to design protected areas and management strategies to optimize the conservation of this big cat.”

WCS works closely with Afghanistan government partners including the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) to find ways to save snow leopards while improving local people’s livelihoods.

NEPA Director General Mostapha Zaher said, “History is being made. Snow leopards are indeed magnificent creatures, and we hope that this research will raise awareness and help in preserving Afghanistan’s snow leopards and our country’s other wonderful wildlife.”

Ghani Ghuriani, Afghanistan Deputy Minister for Agriculture Affairs in the Ministry of Agriculture, said: “The snow leopard is an iconic species for our country. Its continued presence in Afghanistan shows that our efforts at improving natural resource management – from rangeland practices to wildlife protection – are succeeding.”

While this is the first collaring effort in Afghanistan, WCS supported the first ever radio-collar study of snow leopards in Mongolia’s Gobi Altai Mountains in the 1990s under the leadership of Dr. George Schaller. WCS has a long history of working on snow leopard conservation, beginning with Schaller’s wildlife surveys on snow leopards and their prey in the Himalaya in the 1970s, resulting in his seminal books “Mountain Monarchs” and “Stones of Silence.” Schaller and colleagues have followed up that work with ongoing conservation efforts in China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.


Endangered Snow Leopard Habitat Threatened by Climate Change, WWF Study Shows

Washington D.C. (PRWEB) July 16, 2012

Thirty percent of snow leopard habitat may be lost in the Himalayas, due to treeline shift.

A new study shows that climate change presents a heightened threat for snow leopards in the Himalaya Mountains, according to conservation group World Wildlife Fund.

The study, carried out by WWF scientists and published in the journal Biological Conservation, shows that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase steadily, 30 percent of snow leopard habitat in the Himalayas may be lost to treeline shift.

Snow leopards, an endangered species with a remaining population roughly estimated to be between 4,000 and 6,500 individuals, are sparsely distributed in the mountains of northern and central Asia, including part of the Himalaya Mountains. In the Himalayas, snow leopards live in high alpine areas, above the treeline and generally below 16,000 feet, where they are able to stealthily track their prey. According to the study, warmer and wetter conditions in the Himalayas will likely result in forests ascending into alpine areas, the snow leopards’ preferred habitat.

“We know that snow leopards rarely venture into forested areas, and there’s a limit to how high these animals can ascend. If the treeline shifts upwards, as our research predicts it will, we’re looking at the snow leopard faced with diminishing options for where it can live,” said Jessica Forrest, a WWF scientist and one the study’s authors.

The study used both computer modeling and on-the-ground tracking efforts in high elevation areas, and modeled the impacts of various warming scenarios on the Himalayan portion of the snow leopard range. Warming at high elevations in the Himalayas is occurring at rates higher than the global average.

The researchers first used field-based data and environmental information such as land cover, terrain ruggedness, and elevation to map current snow leopard habitat. They then used statistical methods to look at the potential impact of climate change on the Himalayan treeline under three greenhouse gas emissions scenarios available from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC projects temperatures in the region to increase by 3-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, accompanied by an increase in annual precipitation.

Researchers identified areas that are likely to remain resilient to the effects of climate change, and would thus provide habitat to snow leopards under future climate conditions. Many of these areas span national boundaries, emphasizing the need for transboundary cooperation to protect this rare species.

Researchers also emphasized the need to minimize pervasive threats like illegal hunting, human-wildlife conflict, and overgrazing of livestock in snow leopard habitat. Minimizing these concurrent threats will help snow leopards better deal with the additional stress of losing habitat to climate change.

“Loss of alpine habitat not only means less room for snow leopards, but also has the potential to bring them closer to human activities like livestock grazing. As grazing intensifies and the leopards’ natural prey decline, they could begin preying more heavily on livestock, resulting in increased retaliatory killings,” said WWF snow leopard expert and study co-author Dr. Rinjan Shrestha. As part of their findings, researchers also recommended monitoring the impacts of climate change as they evolve, and adapting management strategies accordingly.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Lee Poston, 202-495-4536, Lee(dot)Poston(at)wwfus(dot)org

First Ever Videos of Snow Leopard Mother and Cubs Recorded in Mongolia

New York, NY – For the first time, the den sites of two female snow leopards and their cubs have been located in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains, with the first known videos taken of a mother and cubs, located and  recorded by scientists from Panthera , a wild cat conservation organization, and the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT).

Pictures and videos can be found on Panthera’s website, here

Because of the snow leopard’s secretive and elusive nature, coupled with the extreme and treacherous landscape which they inhabit, dens have been extremely difficult to locate. This is a tremendous discovery and provides invaluable insight into the life story of the snow leopard.

Dr. Tom McCarthy , Executive Director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program stated, “We have spent years trying to determine when and where snow leopards give birth, the size of their litters, and the chances a cub has of surviving into adulthood. This is one of those exceptional moments in conservation where after years of effort, we get a rare glimpse into the life of an animal that needs our help in surviving in today’s world. These data will help ensure a future for these incredible animals.” 

A short video of the female and her cub who were bedded down in a partially man-made den was recorded from a safe distance by Orjan Johansson , Panthera’s Snow Leopard Field Scientist and Ph.D. student, using a camera fixed to an extended pole. 

The team, which included a veterinarian, entered the two dens (the first with two cubs, and the second containing one cub) while the mothers were away hunting. All three cubs were carefully weighed, measured, photographed and other details were recorded. Two of the cubs were fixed with tiny microchip ID tags (the size of a grain of rice) which were placed under their skin for future identification. The utmost care was taken in handling the animals to ensure they were not endangered, which was the top priority of the team at all times. In the following days, the team monitored the mothers’ locations to ensure that they returned to their dens and their cubs, which they successfully did.

“Knowledge about the first days and weeks of life is vital to our understanding of how big cat populations work, and how likely it is for a newborn to reach adulthood and contribute to a healthy population.  A valid conservation program requires such information, which this new development in snow leopard research provides,” said Dr. Howard Quigley , Panthera’s Executive Director of both Jaguar and Cougar Programs.

Referred to by locals as ‘Asia’s Mountain Ghost,’ knowledge of snow leopards in general is quite limited due to the cat’s elusive nature, and even less is known about rearing cubs and cub survival in the wild. Until now, what is known has mostly been learned from studying snow leopards in zoos.  Although snow leopard litters typically consist of one to three cubs in a captive zoo environment, no information exists regarding litter size in the wild. As wild snow leopard cubs are subject to natural predators, disease, and also human threats such as poaching or capture for the illegal wildlife market, the percentage of cubs which survive to adulthood has until now only been speculated.

The use of PIT tags and observations of snow leopard rearing in the wild will allow our scientists to learn about the characteristics of a typical natal den and speculate how a den is selected, how long snow leopard cubs remain in dens, when cubs begin to follow their mothers outside of the dens, how often and how long the mother leaves the cubs alone to hunt, how many cubs are typically born in the wild, and other valuable data.  All of these data and more, gathered through camera-trapping and GPS collaring, help to inform effective conservation initiatives undertaken by Panthera across the snow leopard’s range.


Snow leopard caught on camera in Uttarakhand

For the second year in a row a snow leopard was captured by the cameras installed in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand.


The NDBR is taking technical support of the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) for this special exercise which began last year. A total of fifteen camera traps were installed in different parts of the NDBR this time. The operation began on April when snow leopards move to lower land in search of food. A photograph of the snow leopard, taken this year, was released by the NDBR recently.

The NDBR, which includes Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers National Park, was declared as biosphere reserve under the Unesco’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme in 2004.

BK Gangte, director of NDBR, said, “Only the fortunate get a chance to watch the endangered snow leopard in the wild. We launched this project last year to capture images of snow leopard through camera traps. This is the second time in two year when we were successful in taking image of the snow leopard. Besides the snow leopard we were also successful in taking pictures of monal, musk deer, blue sheep and many other threatened species this year.”

This time the snow leopard was spotted near Farkya village in Chamoli. The village is located near an Indo-Tibetan Border Police post in the high Himalayas. Last year, on April 10, a snow leopard was caught on camera at Malari region of NDBR.

It is estimated that the total population of snow leopards in India is about 500. Most of the time the snow leopard was monitored through carnivore sign surveys based on evidences such as tracks/pug marks.

Only a few sightings by forest personnel and local villagers or herders were reported from NDBR, Gangtori National Park and Govind National Park in Uttarakhand. However there was no photographic record of snow leopard from Uttarakhand, till last year. After last year’s success, the forest staff continued the operation this year too.

The most beautiful, rare and elusive big cat – the snow leopard – inhabits high altitudes of the Himalayas (3,000 mts) and is the top carnivore of the Himalayan ecosystems.

The snow leopard preys on blue sheep, musk deer, Himalayan tahr, and many small mammals such as marmot, pika and galliformes (snowcock, monal, snow partridge etc). It also preys on domestic livestock when they are herded in the high altitude pasture lands during summer.

It is threatened due to poaching for skin and bones and retaliatory killings against livestock loss.