Wildlife genetics and its applications for snow leopard conservation in Nepal

By Dibesh Karmacharya

As they gracefully navigate through the high Himalayan mountain landscape, the elusive and endangered snow leopards exemplify nature’s greatest gift to all of us. Snow leopards are found throughout the Himalayan region. These magnificent creatures are the quintessential top carnivore, often the main balancing factor for all the downstream preys; sustaining the fine ecological balance.

Nepal’s high Himalaya region provides excellent refuse to snow leopards. It is estimated that there are close to 400 snow leopards in Nepal spread throughout pockets of various conservation areas. But the exact number of this species in Nepal remains to be studied. There are various reasons why experts believe the exact number of snow leopard found in Nepal could be much lower than the estimated number. Snow leopard’s long-term viability has continuously been threatened by conflict with locals because of livestock depredation-sometimes resulting in retaliatory killings. Loss of habitat and declining prey numbers due to their preferred grazing areas being encroached for livestock usage are also some of the major contributing factors for snow leopard’s declining numbers.

Furthermore, there is active illicit trans-border market for wildlife animal parts in the northern frontiers of Nepal and Tibet; as a result poaching has become widespread. As substitute to tiger bones and other tissue parts, Asian traditional medicine market has an increasing demand for bones and other tissue parts of endangered felids such as snow leopard. This has exacerbated the threat of snow leopards in Nepal.

Prior to any effective conservation strategy being designed and implemented, it is crucial to gather reasonable data on estimation of existing abundance and distribution of snow leopard in Nepal. However because of elusive, solitary nature of snow leopard and its rugged rocky terrain habitat, information available is sparse and inadequate on their actual distribution and population status.

Majority of snow leopard studies have consisted of surveys that relied upon sign (e.g. pugmarks, scrapes and scats), interviews with local inhabitants, and camera trapping. However, these approaches have several disadvantages including the need for extended time in the field (>40–50 days), the difficulty of setting camera traps in snow leopard habitat, and the high cost of field work in remote areas. Hence additional methods to supplement sign surveys and camera trapping therefore become essential for effective monitoring of snow leopards.

Genetic analysis has become an effective and popular method and is used in all aspects of wildlife biology and conservation. Since portions of genome of every individual is unique; use of genetic tools yield highly specific information which in turn can be used in various aspects of wildlife biology such as migration rates, population size, bottlenecks and kinship. Genetic analysis can also be utilised to identify species, sex and individuals; and provide insight on its population trend as well as to gather other taxonomic level information. Since it is infeasible to enumerate populations of low density, wide-ranging and elusive species like snow leopards, non-invasive methods of detecting snow leopards by using scat or fecal sample have been frequently employed to infer estimations on the number of individuals in a certain area; moreover, this method has also been favoured for eliminating the need for direct interactions (invasive) that could potentially have adverse effects on animal welfare.

Most of the non-invasive wildlife genetics methods involve extracting genetic material (DNA) from the fecal matter, and then subjecting that DNA for species and sex identification molecular assay-mainly Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Same DNA can also be subjected to DNA fingerprinting assay to derive individual identification and characterisation. Phylogenetics can also be carried out to draw evolutionary relatedness among populations found at different areas, thereby helping us draw “genetic movement map” and figure out whether there is any gene flow between separate populations. So with the molecular or genetic technique, not only we will be able to tell whether fecal matter or any biological sample belongs to certain species, say snow leopard, but also we will be able to tell whether it is male or female and also whether two samples are from the same individual or are coming from different individuals.

The applications and utilisation of such information are not only confined to population estimation and trend analysis, but they can also be used to draw complete genetic relationship maps between various populations and thereby help us comprehend wildlife habit and habitat of endangered species like snow leopards in landscape level- this whole new field of wildlife biology is also known as Landscape genomics. Molecular based wildlife forensics can be a very effective tool to fight against poaching. DNA fingerprinting as it is commonly known can be used to identify an unknown tissue or any animal part and see if it belongs to any endangered species.

Currently, efforts are underway to initiate genetic based wildlife research in Nepal. The Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, based in Kathmandu, has embarked into this field in collaboration with various wildlife conservation related governmental and non-governmental organisations. It is very important that our policy makers, academicians and conservation enthusiasts are all on board to review our current conservation efforts more closely and utilise new upcoming technologies to gather accurate information, which in turn will help us in designing effective conservation strategies. In that context, the currently available wildlife genetics tools can be polished to fit Nepal’s needs in her conservation efforts.

(Dibesh Karmacharya is the International Director of the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal and can be reached at dibesh@cmdn.org This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )