GPS To Track Blue Sheep And Snow Leopard

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Scientists hope to improve the survival odds of the endangered snow leopard in Nepal by venturing into the remote Himalayas to study its main prey, the Bharal or blue sheep.Project leader Nepali PhD student Achyut Aryal, who is enrolled at the Institute of Natural Sciences at the Albany campus, says it is the first use of global positioning satellite technology to track the Bharal, and the first use of the technology for conservation purposes in Nepal.Detailed information on population estimates and distribution for blue sheep and snow leopards is vital for conservation management, says Associate Professor Dianne Brunton, co-supervisor of the study and head of the Ecology and Conservation Group at the institute. She will travel to Nepal next year to carry out further observational field work and data collection, including snow leopard scat samples.Mr. Aryal and co-researcher Massey nutritional ecology professor David Raubenheimer are currently in the Annapurna Conservation Area of Nepal, performing the initial stages of the work. It took the men several days of travel by foot and on horseback to reach the study site near the Tibetan border.The initial study of the animals’ movements, grazing habits and population structure within a limited range will pave the way for the next phase of the study using GPS transmitters. These will allow researchers to track the movements of 10 sheep in different herds for two years continuously across the vast, inaccessible high altitude region on computer screens in New Zealand.“To date there has been little study of the home range, movement and habitat use of blue sheep in this region,” Mr. Aryal says. They resemble mountain goats with blue-tinged hair and curled horns and are preyed on by other high altitude species such as the brown bear as well as human trophy hunters.Lack of data is due to the extreme logistical difficulties of working at 3000m to 6500m altitudes with a climate characterised as cold desert, dominated by strong winds and high solar radiation, says Mr. Aryal. “However, this region is one of the last refuges for species such as snow leopards, brown bear, wolf, lynx and, importantly, their keystone prey species, the blue sheep.” Population estimates for the snow leopard worldwide are currently between 5000 and 10,000, with numbers declining due to being hunted for fur and as a trophy, killing by farmers because of its reputation as a livestock predator, and loss of food due to trophy hunting. “There is evidence that climate change is causing the blue sheep to come into frequent contact with local villages” says Professor Raubenheimer. “There they raid the precious crops, and also attract snow leopards into the vicinity of the livestock.”Satellite tracking has previously been used by Massey scientists in the study of godwits migrating from Alaska to New Zealand, and frogs. Dr Brunton hopes New Zealand school pupils will become involved in the snow leopard and blue sheep study next year by observing the movement of the satellite-tracked animals on classroom computers.

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.”