Fast decline in fascinating snow leopards population, Pakistan

Noor Aftab for The International News
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Though extinction of wildlife species in Pakistan is not new as well as ‘astonishing’ phenomenon but for those who care it would be quite disappointing that fast decline in population of fascinating snow leopards in mountain ranges has now clearly indicated their near-disappearance from the wildlife scene.

Only two population studies of snow leopards in Pakistan have ever been attempted — one in 1974 by noted biologist George Schaller and another by Shafqat Hussain of Yale University in 2003. But unofficial reports unanimously portrayed a bleak picture in which it was stated that there were only 300 to 400 snow leopards left in the snow-covered mountain ranges of Pakistan, out of a total estimated world population of 4,000 to 7,000. This region is the main corridor for connecting bigger populations of snow leopards living in Pakistan, Central Asia, China, India and Nepal.

According to International Snow Leopards Trust, the main factors blamed for decline in the population of snow leopards included poaching, retribution killing, prey loss and lack of awareness among the local people.

Though trade in snow leopards is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, their pelts bring high prices on the black market, often equivalent to an entire year’s income for a mountain villager.

The data showed that snow leopards are hunted illegally for their pelts, which are sought after especially in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia for coats and other garments. Their bones and other body parts are also in demand for use in traditional Asian medicine.

Many of the poachers are local people from snow leopard areas for them poaching may be a lucrative source of extra income to help them feed their families.

Snow leopards sometimes prey on domestic livestock. Herders in snow leopard areas lead precarious economic lives, and their wealth is almost entirely tied up in their herds. The loss of even a single sheep or goat represents a real economic hardship. Herders often retaliate for these losses by trapping, poisoning, or shooting snow leopards.

As humans push ever further into mountainous areas with their livestock, the snow leopard’s habitat is degraded and fragmented. Overgrazing damages the fragile mountain grasslands, leaving less food for the wild sheep and goats that are the snow leopard’s main prey.

Legal and illegal hunting for meat and trophies is also depleting prey populations. This situation also increases conflict with local people, because snow leopards are more likely to kill domestic livestock when their natural prey is scarce.

Sitting at the top of the food chain, snow leopards play a key role in maintaining the mountain ecosystem. Dr Ma Ming, of the Snow Leopard Trust in Xinjiang, China, calls it an ‘umbrella species’: protecting it ensures its habitat and many other local species are also preserved.

While going through the efforts made so far Project Snow Leopard (PSL) initiated by Yale University researcher Shafqat Hussain in 1998 appeared one of the effective steps to ensure survival of this endangered species.

The insurance scheme started by Shafqat Hussain compensates villagers for every goat killed by the predators, which effectively deters the villagers from killing the offending cat or any other suspect.

The annual premium paid is one per cent of the value of one goat, with each herder paying according to the number of goats he owns. This covers about half of all claims.

Director of Deosai National Park Zakir told this correspondent that they have been working on three conservation programmes to ensure increase in the population of snow leopards in mountainous regions.

He said despite the fact that there are only 80 personnel in the wildlife department to curb illegal hunting and implement plans in the area measuring 28,000 sq km they are trying their best to protect and preserve rare animal species.

“We have investigated various incidents in which local people poisoned snow leopards to protect their livestock so various mass awareness campaigns have been initiated especially in those areas where snow leopards enjoy their habitat,” he said.

Zakir said they have also signed MoU with Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan that would pave the way for improving socio-economic conditions of the local people in return of their cooperation for protection of snow leopards from hunting or killing.

Press release from Snow Leopard Foundation, Pakistan: Three snow leopards snapped in a single capture in Khunjerab National Park

Three snow leopards snapped in a single capture in Khunjerab National Park

Snow leopards are so cryptic in nature and reside in one of the harshest and inaccessible milieus of our planet that encountering with snow leopard in the wild is like a dream. This elusive nature of snow leopard led one of the eminent wildlife biologists of the world to attribute this as “Imperiled Phantom”.

A total of 643 photographs including a group of 3 snow leopards (probably 2 sub adults with a mother) were photographed during an intensive camera trapping session of 560 nights in KNP during Nov-Dec. 2010, conducted by the Snow Leopard Foundation, Pakistan in collaboration with the Directorate of KNP and Gilgit-Baltistan Forest and Wildlife Department. The cameras captured many other wild species as well.

The Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserve viable populations of snow leopards and other wild carnivores as an integral part of landscapes across Pakistan, while improving the socio-economic condition of the people who share the fragile mountain ecosystem with the wildlife. The SLF works in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera, the two leading international wild cat conservation organizations, and operates in three core sectors: research and monitoring, community based conservation programs, and conservation education and awareness. It has
pioneered state-of-the-art research tools in Pakistan and operating in Gilgit-Baltistan, Khybger Pakhtunkhaw, and Azad Jamu and Kashmir.

The current study was undertaken in KNP from November, 23 to December 31, 2010 and was aimed at assessing the status of snow leopard as well as other carnivores, their key prey species, and human-carnivore conflict. The study also tested affect of different kinds of baits on camera trapping success.

In addition to camera trapping, more than 1400 km² area was scanned during occupancy surveys and 150 fecal samples were collected for genetic analysis. The study provided a rare learning opportunity to the staff of the Wildlife Department, and students from national and international universities, who were engaged. Once data analysis is completed, the study will provide more reliable estimates of snow leopard in the park besides highlighting existing management/monitoring limitations and ultimately help better manage the park resources in the longer run.

Panthera provided financial support for this study.

The snow leopard: ghost of the mountains – Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera Mongolia research

Friday 17 December 2010

Snow leopards face the threats of poaching, habitat loss and diminishing prey. In remotest Mongolia, a research team is keeping tabs on this iconic and elusive species

By Nigel Richardson 7:00AM GMT 16 Dec 2010

The trail bike kicked up a plume of dust as it approached across the high desert steppe of south-west Mongolia. Orjan Johansson dismounted, unclipping the body protectors that made him look like the action hero of a computer game. ‘There was a leopard in the valley last night,’ he said. ‘I put my finger in the pee this morning and it was wet.’

Nobody said anything, we just thought it: if the traps had been built yesterday, we might have got one. We might have joined the tiny number of people alive on this planet who have seen a snow leopard in the wild. This most elusive and mysterious of big cats comes along only slightly more often than a unicorn, and if you are not prepared you can regret it for the rest of your life.

The one person not troubled by regret was Johansson himself, for in the history of biological research into Panthera uncia no one has had more physical contact with wild snow leopards than this 33-year-old PhD student from Sweden. From 1982 to 2008 biologists succeeded in capturing only 15 snow leopards (for the purpose of attaching radio or GPS collars) in their natural habitat. In the past two years a further 12 have been caught by one man, Johansson, a research associate at the Grimso Wildlife Research Station, which is affiliated to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. He is, in the words of Dr Koustubh Sharma, the conservation biologist supervising the Swede’s groundbreaking work in Mongolia, a ‘snow leopard catching machine’.

Johansson represents the sharp end of the world’s first long-term ecological study into the charismatic leopard, about which far less is known than any other of the big cats. Co-sponsored by two US-based non-profit organisations, the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera, the programme is now in its third year and scheduled to run for at least 15 years. In late August of this year – as summer in the high desert shaded into chilly nights and misty dawns – I joined Johansson and his backup team in their remote mountain camp.

The J Tserendeleg Snow Leopard Research Centre is located in a mountain range in Mongolia’s South Gobi province. In the far south-west of the province the Gobi Desert rises and crumples into a series of east-west ridges and valleys known as the Tost Mountains. This area, 75 miles long and 10 to 20 miles wide, is hardly classic snow leopard country, being neither particularly high – about 7,000ft – nor heavily snowbound in winter. But, for reasons that are not entirely understood, it sustains a high density of snow leopards. Based on his work of the past two years, Johansson puts the figure at more than 20.

The research centre comprises a base camp, where the ancillary team of biologists, researchers and volunteers stay a few days at a time and where I made my home for a week, and Johansson’s camp, which moves around depending on where he is working. At the end of August his camp was located nine miles from base camp (hence the trail bike) among a complex of flat, narrow valleys and jagged ranges of rock.

Here golden eagles and lammergeyer vultures soar above the ridge lines, and snow leopards descend from those ridges under the cloak of night to cross from one range to another. ‘There’s a lot of sign here,’ Johansson said, meaning the various indicators that betray their presence – not only urine, as he had seen that morning, but also images caught on automatic cameras, scrapes (in the ground, created when they kick their back legs), pug marks (paw prints), and scat (faeces).

Today was the start of a new collaring season for Johansson. The collars, equipped with GPS and costing more than £2,500 each, are highly sophisticated but they are programmed to drop off the animal when the batteries die after about one year. Only three of the collars he had previously attached were transmitting properly so it was time to capture and collar more cats. By mid-December he hoped to have 10 fully functioning collars beaming back the location and movement of snow leopards for many miles around.

This ongoing programme, the first of its kind, is yielding invaluable data on snow leopards’ home ranges (now known to be hundreds of square miles), kinship, genetic diversity and seasonal movements, and represents some of the most important and dramatic animal conservation work being undertaken anywhere on the planet in the early 21st century. The irony is that, bar Johansson himself, few of the biologists and researchers involved in it had even caught a glimpse of a snow leopard (and neither, of course, had I).

These snow leopard virgins included Koustubh Sharma, who has worked with tigers in India and completed his PhD on the rare four-horned antelope, the SLT’s conservation programmes director Jennifer Snell Rullman, and Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, who for the past 11 years has been at the forefront of community-based efforts to save the snow leopard and whose name in Mongolia is practically synonymous with the big cats. This omission may strike you as analogous to the Barcelona fan who has never set foot in the Camp Nou stadium, but the difference is that you can’t just buy a ticket. You have to get seriously lucky. And on the morning that Johansson rode up to tell us of the snow leopard presence the night before, even hardbitten scientists felt their luck had just tiptoed past them in the dark wearing a grin as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s.

T here are compelling reasons why the snow leopard is seldom seen. For a start there are not many of them left. In the past half-century their numbers have steadily diminished because of erosion of habitat and depletion of prey. During last winter, the worst in Mongolia for decades, some 10 million head of livestock died, and the effect on the snow leopards’ prey base (chiefly a wild goat called ibex, and argali sheep)
is not yet known.

But by far their biggest problem is depredation by man, despite their being an officially protected species. Poachers hunt them for their skins and for various body parts that are used in traditional Chinese medicine, while herders kill them in retaliation for the killing of their livestock. And in Mongolia a new threat looms. The government has granted a tranche of licences to foreign mining companies to look for coal in the district that includes the Tost Mountains. Should coal mining proceed there – as it already has on the plain nearby – the effect on the local snow leopard population will be catastrophic.

Estimates put the number currently living wild in the world at between 3,500 and 7,000 – far fewer, for example, than the population of domestic cats in a medium-size British town. Snow leopards are included in the Convention on Inter­national Trade in Endangered Species Appendix I, which is the critical list of 800 species threatened with extinction, and classified as ‘Endangered’ on the Inter­national Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Their inaccessible and inhospitable habitat casts them further into the shadows and margins. The snow leopard, which weighs between 55 and 100lb, generally lives at altitude along the horseshoe of high peaks that encircle central Asia, from the Altai Mountains in the north to the Himalayas in the south. Nominally belonging to a dozen countries, including Pakistan, India, Nepal and China as well as Mongolia, this is a realm that has more affinity with clouds than with nation states. Not only is its natural habitat remote but the snow leopard is also nocturnal and crepuscular and its camouflaged fur is highly effective – they are next to invisible to the human eye from any kind of distance.

The snow leopard’s coat – shading from smoky yellow to silver-white and overlaid with grey-black markings – seems to have a certain shape-shifting quality. ‘When I’ve worked with them close-to, they’re white, but from a distance they blend in with the rock,’ Johansson told me with a shrug. ‘I don’t know how it works.’ To enable them to cope with the altitude and mountainous terrain, nature has bestowed upon snow leopards deep chests that house powerful lungs, large nasal cavities, short, strong forelegs, long hind legs and the longest tail, in relation to its body, of any cat.

The tail – 35-40in long, as soft as pashmina and as heavy as rope on a galleon – is a wondrous appendage, used as both scarf and counterweight. Courtesy of this tail the snow leopard in motion is as finely balanced as a gyroscope, and as stealthy as mist. Dr Sharma showed me footage of one walking. Inadvertently it sets a stone rolling with one paw, and in the same movement bats the stone to a standstill so as not to make the slightest noise.

This combination of extreme rarity, striking physique and ghostlike grace gives the snow leopard unique cachet with humans. Western conservationists rally to its power as a ‘flagship species’, a charismatic presence around which awareness of wildlife issues can be raised, and the computer giant Apple even considered it sufficiently hip for ‘the world’s most advanced operating system’ to be named in its honour.

It has also given its name to one of the great English-language travel books of the past 30 years, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, in which his quest to see one in the mountains of Nepal becomes a metaphor for an inner, Buddhism-inspired journey of the soul. It is often forgotten, in the clouds of acclaim that have swirled around the book, that Matthiessen failed in his quest. He did not see a snow leopard. His rationale for this failure was something I had been trying to take on board while in Mongolia, in anticipation of my own failure: ‘If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard,’ he wrote. ‘If not, then somehow (and I don’t understand this instinct, even now) I am not ready to perceive it… and in the not-seeing, I am content.’

Orjan Johansson was aware of the semi-mystical aura surrounding the snow leopard, and the irony was not lost on him that a by-product of this long-term research project will be a certain demystifying of the ghost of the mountains. ‘We don’t know anything about them,’ he exclaimed. ‘How many cubs they have. How long they stay with their mothers. What they eat, even. We need this basic ecological knowledge as a base for good conservation practices. In a way we’re taking away the romantic picture, the mystique, which is sad, of course. But we can’t have them be like the unicorn, that nobody ever sees.’

Johansson was talking in his camp, where I was helping him build his snares. His camp was a ger – a traditional Mongolian nomad’s yurt, circular and made of felt. They can be surprisingly luxurious inside, with carpets, televisions and stoves. Johansson’s was a utilitarian space. Stacked in boxes were the tools of his trade: camera traps (triggered, like burglar alarm sensors, by heat and movement), GPS collars and the ironmongery needed to make snares.

A calendar featuring portraits of the Swedish royal family hung from a wall (August was Queen Silvia, but it wasn’t a decorative choice, he said, just the only calendar he could find in Sweden at short notice). A bowl of pet food betrayed the presence of Felis catus (a domestic cat), though she was currently out hunting in the mountains. ‘The cat’s called Friday,’ Johansson said, ‘because I feel like Robinson Crusoe out here.’

From the moment he builds the first trap of a new collaring season his life becomes by necessity ascetic and exhausting. Each trap is connected to a transmitter tuned to its own VHF frequency. When a trap is sprung it sounds an alarm in Johansson’s ger – always at night, for the wild creatures of the mountains are nocturnal. There are plenty of false alarms – a fox or goat – but in any case he must get to the trap site without delay in order to minimise the time the animal spends in the snare. As autumn turns to winter, and temperatures nosedive to -25C, the routine leaves him increasingly lonely, cold and sleep-deprived. ‘I’ve done 31 days with no one around, and that sucks,’ he told me. ‘Your face muscles don’t work properly because you haven’t been speaking. I have conversations with myself: Shall I have spaghetti today? Yeah, that’d be good.’

He usually has some contact with base camp, though the biologists and researchers there tend to come and go, and he does have neighbours. Lower down the valley, and in adjacent valleys, live a scattering of herder families in gers who graze small flocks of goats and sheep on gruel-thin pastureland. Every herder I spoke to had lost goats and sheep to snow leopards. ‘At least four or five a year,’ one of Johansson’s neighbours, 35-year-old Battur, reckoned. ‘But since the Snow Leopard Trust came we do not trap [and kill] them any more.’

The SLT has been doing sterling work in creating disincentives for the killing of snow leopards. Last year it inaugurated a livestock insurance scheme, and since 1999 Bayarjargal Agvaantseren has been coordinating an initiative called Snow Leopard Enterprises. Women from about 400 households are now involved across Mongolia, producing handicrafts that are sold at zoos and conferences in the US and in Europe. Last year sales exceeded £80,000, and all funds flow back to the herders. A condition of payment is that if a snow leopard is trapped and killed, the women living in the administrative area where it happened will forfeit a bonus. The scheme has already proved itself: last year a herder who killed a snow leopard was pressurised by the local community into compensating local women for the loss of that year’s windfall. He also faces a life-destroying fine of thousands of pounds.

As a result of such initiatives herders are getting the conservation message. Down the valley, Johansson negotiated with another neighbour, Garaa, over the proposed location of his new snares. ‘If it’s no trouble I will stay and build the traps here,’ the Swede told his neighbour. ‘Otherwise I will return in October when you have moved down the valley to your winter pasture.’ But the herder said it was no trouble. He promised he would keep his goats away from the snares – and would it be possible, he asked shyly, to come and have a look if a snow leopard was captured?

Trap building is an art and a science. First of all you have to find evidence of traffic, in particular the urine sprays that snow leopards leave for others to pick up. If you were facetious you might refer to these sprays as wee-mails and this is precisely the analogy chosen by Dr Sharma to describe the valley where Johansson had decided to build his traps. ‘It is like a very active Facebook page right now,’ he said.

Stalking along a wall of rock on one side of the valley, Johansson said, ‘All cats like following walls – think of your cat at home. It’s a good place to scout the valley from. So let’s follow this wall.’ He stopped where the rock wall turned sharply inwards. On the corner was an overhang. On the underside of the rock he indicated the dark urine stain and dropped down on all fours, turning himself into a snow leopard. ‘They will sniff this and rub their face in it.’ He pointed out the faint prickle of white hairs clinging to the rock. ‘And then they turn round and pee.’ He reversed up to the rock and raised his backside to demonstrate. ‘So this is a good place for a trap.’

He remained within the psyche of the snow leopard for several minutes while deliberating on the precise spot to site the trap, then worked with delicacy and method, like a bomb disposal expert in reverse, to build it. When the leopard steps on the trigger it throws up a snare that tightens in a noose around its leg. Made of semi-rigid steel aircraft cable, the snare cannot tighten beyond a certain point and will not cut into the leg. It is in turn attached to a steel spring that is firmly anchored in the ground, and to the transmitter that sends out the alarm signal.

The welfare of the animal is Johansson’s absolute priority. The throwing arm of the trigger is positioned so it cannot fly up and hit the leopard. There are swivels and a limiter on the spring so it cannot entangle the leopard nor spring back in a whiplash effect. And he takes a hammer to any sharp rock edges that the leopard might cut itself on as it twists and turns in its efforts to escape.

When he had completed our first trap he stood back, narrowed his eyes and stared at the snare site. All I could see was a faint, craterlike outline in the dirt. ‘What do you think?’ he said. ‘Shall I move that rock?’ Without waiting for a reply he bent and moved it – half an inch – like a painter squinting at a canvas and making minute brushstrokes of adjustment. By 7pm the sun had gone from the valley, the wind had got up and we had built four traps.

Johansson ate at base camp that evening. He had not seen Cat Friday for two days, and feared she had been killed. He did not appreciate the fearful symmetry inherent in the idea of the little cat being taken by the big. ‘I liked Friday. I had her for two years. It kind of sucks,’ he said gloomily, contemplating a lonely autumn.

After supper he clipped the body protectors back on and rode back to his ger. The arrangement was that if a trap was sprung in the night he would call base camp on his satellite phone and we would drive over to the valley in the camp vehicle. I went to sleep with my socks on. At midnight the satellite phone sounded deafeningly in our ger. My legs were out of the sleeping bag and into my trousers before Dr Sharma answered it. Sharma listened and then said, with admirable calmness in the circumstances, ‘We’ve got a snow leopard.’

It was a female and she had been caught in the first trap we had built. Johansson had darted her by the time we got there. She lay unconscious and blindfolded on a camouflaged survival blanket beneath a perfect half-moon and nine bobbing head-torches. I saw what Johansson meant about the coat. It glowed white, seeming to return with interest the light that beamed down on her.

For seven of the nine of us present it was our first wild snow leopard. We hovered in awe, taking photographs and not believing our luck. I stroked the tail and scooped a hand under it to feel the heft. In the chiaroscuro effect of the light from our headlamps and the looks of rapt attention on our faces, the scene resembled Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.

Meanwhile, Johansson and Sharma worked deftly and quietly on the body on the blanket, measuring and weighing her, taking blood and hair samples, cleaning up minor wounds and fitting the GPS collar, while keeping her eyes moistened and checking her vital signs every 10 minutes. Johansson, who was in his element, said at one point, ‘This is like a family reunion.’

Two hours after being detained in our world the snow leopard melted back to her own, having received the antidote to the knockout dart. For the record, she weighed 79lb, her body was 45in long and her tail 38½in. Her age was put at between four and six, she had suckled, though not recently, and the data now being sent back by her collar will be of untold benefit to the long-term conservation of this beleaguered species. But she kept some secrets to herself. You can’t hang beauty on a weighing scale, nor hold up a tape measure to grace.

Postscript Johansson’s cat, Friday, was alive after all. He found her living with a herder family in the next valley and claimed her back. The collared snow leopard was named Khashaa. You can follow her progress at (see under Blog) where you can find out more about the Snow Leopard Trust and make donations. See also

Nigel Richardson flew to Mongolia on Korean Air (, via Seoul, and is indebted to Panoramic Journeys (01608-811183; for arranging his travel within Mongolia. Additional reporting by S Bolortuya

SLN member Tom McCarthy honored by Mongolian government

28 October 2010
Snow leopard researcher and conservationist, Dr. Tom McCarthy, was recently recognized by the Mongolian government for his long-term contribution to wildlife science in that country. At a ceremony in the office of the President, he was awarded the State of Mongolia Friendship Medal, the highest award given by the Mongolian government to a non-Mongolian to recognize outstanding contributions to Mongolia and its people. Tom started working in Mongolia in 1993 when George Schaller selected him to lead a snow leopard study in the Altai Mountains. As a Ph.D. student with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he spent the next 6 years studying snow leopards, Gobi brown bears and wild Bactrian camels in and around the Great Gobi National Park. His research into livestock-snow leopard conflicts led to the establishment of Snow Leopard Enterprises, one of the most successful community-based conservation programs for the species. From 2000 – 2009 he led the Snow Leopard Trust’s programs in Mongolia, and currently as Panthera’s Executive Director of Snow Leopard Programs he co-manages a long-term ecological study of snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi Province. Speaking of the award Tom stated, “I have just been very fortunate to work alongside some of Mongolia’s most dedicated scientists and conservationists for nearly two decades. It is very humbling to receive this award for doing something I have always considered to be a privilege.”

More on the award can be found at:

Snow leopard cubs caught on video in Mongolia

Oct 04, 2010

In this short video , three snow leopard cubs investigate a remote automated camera that filmed them in August in the Tost Mountains of South Gobi, Mongolia.

Two conservation groups, Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust, are collaborating on a long-term study of snow leopards in the region. The clip is made up of 61 images taken about a half second apart. The cubs are believed to be approximately two years old.

It is estimated there are no more than 500 and1,000 snow leopards still left in Mongolia.

The project is the first ever long-term ecological study of the animals; and the most comprehensive study to date focused on snow leopards.

By Elizabeth Weise

Freeman Award for Snow Leopard Conservation: Rinchen Wangchuk

Freeman Award for Snow Leopard Conservation

The Snow Leopard Trust is happy to announce that Rinchen Wangchuk has been selected as the recipient of the Freeman Award for Snow Leopard Conservation. The award established by the family of Helen Freeman to recognize leaders in snow leopard conservation comes with an honorarium of US$1,000.

Rinchen is currently the Director for the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India, based in Leh, Ladakh. Rinchen and his team work closely with livestock herding communities to predator-proof nighttime corrals, and train local people, especially women and young men, in ways of enhancing their income generation skills in activities closely linked with the conservation of snow leopards. At another level, he assists local non-government organizations build capacity for protecting India’s rich mountain biodiversity.

One of Rinchen’s greatest achievements has been his role in rural tourism initiatives that enabled launching the award-winning Himalayan Homestay program, a highly acclaimed UNESCO-sponsored project. SLC-India and its broadly-based snow leopard conservation program now operate as an independent organization, having started as a project of the Snow Leopard Conservancy – USA.

Rinchen’s commitment to working for the welfare of wildlife and rural people has grown out of his own Ladakhi village upbringing and his experiences as a skilled mountaineer and more recently, a nature tour guide. With fellow Indian climbers, he summited the 24,660-foot Saser Kangri II in Ladakh’s Nubra region. He received special training in community-based tourism from The Mountain Institute (Nepal) and RECROFT (Thailand). Rinchen also assisted researchers to develop the Earth watch program, “Land of the Snow Leopard.” He has served as a naturalist and assistant on several documentaries filmed in Hemis National Park, including the widely acclaimed “Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard.”

Please join us in congratulating Rinchen on this well deserved recognition for his years of service towards snow leopard conservation.

Protecting Snow Leopard’s Namesake Cats

This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2009-09-16 at 3:25 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is:

Protecting Snow Leopard’s Namesake Cats

By now you’ve probably gotten a glimpse at the big cat Apple has been touting as the face of its new operating system, Snow Leopard. But did you know that the real snow leopard [1] is a highly endangered species? With dwindling population numbers in the wild estimated to be between 3,500 to 7,000, this native of Central Asia is facing extinction.

The snow leopard is a beautiful cat with big paws, a thick fur coat, and a long tail used for balance in its mountainous roaming. Bearing the moniker Spirit of the Himalayas, its natural habitat encompasses the mountains of central and south Asia including parts of Mongolia, India, Pakistan, China, and other countries. Solitary animals, snow leopards usually live 15 to 20 years in the wild.

Since 1972, the snow leopard has been identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature [3] as an endangered species – right up there with the panda, the blue whale, and the albatross. Today, their habitat continues to be encroached upon by agricultural needs; they’re poached for their pelts; and they’re killed by farmers looking to protect their livestock.

Fortunately, other people are looking out for the snow leopard.

Conservation Groups — Two main groups are currently devoted solely to the snow leopard’s plight. Founded in 1981, the Snow Leopard Trust [4] is one of the world’s leading authorities on the study and protection of the snow leopard. With a large staff spread over five snow leopard range countries, the Trust is attempting to affect change at the country level. In 2008, the Trust also began a long-term research project that seeks to gain a stronger grip on the issues facing snow leopards by better understanding their living habits.

The Snow Leopard Trust’s short term conservation goals include expanding the number of Mongolian communities participating in conservation efforts (Mongolia is home to the second-largest snow leopard population) and initiating a pilot program in China, which has the largest snow leopard population. The Trust’s primary long term goal is to help the snow leopard reach healthy and self-sustainable population numbers in the wild.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy [5] is the other main source of snow leopard conservation efforts. The Conservancy focuses on enhancing the stewardship of alpine ecosystems within communities that provide habitat (and easy prey via livestock) for snow leopards. The Conservancy’s stated challenge is to seek “ways of helping local people regain their willingness to co-exist with large predators.”

What Could Apple Do? While it is by no means Apple’s responsibility to take part in the efforts to protect its latest operating system’s namesake, the company has a great opportunity to help a worthy cause. Given Apple’s recent efforts to become a greener enterprise, embracing the snow leopard as its current-day mascot and supporting efforts to save the snow leopard from extinction would help underscore other green efforts like eliminating BFRs, PVC, and mercury from its iPods and computers. The financial planning company Pacific Life provides a good role model of a company giving back to its brand icon [6], which in their case is the humpback whale.

Most simply, Apple could just help raise awareness of the issue with an educational box on its Snow Leopard page [7]. Given that many people don’t even know the snow leopard is endangered, even a simple effort like this would go a long way.

Apple could also make a donation to the Snow Leopard Trust and/or the Snow Leopard Conservancy. Better yet, Apple could involve the Mac community in the effort by offering to match donations made by Mac users. The Snow Leopard Trust already has such a donation matching program in place with another donor. Through 31-Oct-09, if the organization can raise $25,000, any donation you make will be met by the Geyer Trust.

“That means doubling the impact for your gift,” Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust, told me via email. “Gifts big and small are important to us. $5 is enough for us to track a snow leopard for one day using GPS technology, and $1,000 is what it takes to protect one snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan for one year.

Some Mac-related organizations have already stepped up to the plate. Apple resellers Tekserve [8] in New York City and Monterey Bay Computer Works [9] in California have already contributed to the Snow Leopard Trust’s fundraising program. Tekserve donated the proceeds from the first 100 copies of Snow Leopard it sold. Select ASMC (Apple Specialist Marketing Co-op [10]) retailers are also helping out by promoting snow leopard “adoptions” in their stores. It would be great to see Apple join these Apple resellers and take an active role in encouraging and promoting the protection of the snow leopard.

What Can You Do? Don’t feel you have to wait for Apple to make a move, because there’s plenty you can do right now to help snow leopards. Aside from making an individual donation to one of the organizations mentioned above, you could “adopt” a snow leopard (via either the Trust or Conservancy), donate your old car [11] to raise funds, or purchase crafts [12] made by people living in the snow leopard habitat to help alleviate the economic pressures that lead herders to forcibly protect their livestock (the craftsmen must abide by jointly negotiated conservation agreements that protect the cats and their key prey).

Additionally, if you really want to get involved, consider volunteering for either the Trust or the Conservancy. The Trust in particular has noted that it needs volunteers to help expand their social network presence, develop presentations, write and distribute press releases, and host fundraising events.

And though it may seem small, simply spreading the word about the snow leopard’s endangered status – whether by conversation, email, or Twitter (I recommend linking to this obscenely cute video [13] of snow leopard kittens at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo) – can have a real impact. (And if you go to Woodland Park Zoo yourself on the right day, you might even get to see TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson and his daughter Ellie masquerading as snow leopards.)

Brad Rutherford was up front about the possibilities. “Support from Apple, its retailers, and Mac users has the potential to make a huge, immediate difference in protecting snow leopards,” he said.

So next time you boot up Snow Leopard, take a moment to think about those big cats prowling around the Himalayas, and hopefully, they’ll still be with us long after Apple has moved beyond big cat operating systems.


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.”

Saving the Snow Leopard

Saving the Snow Leopard
By Sharon Marshall

With only an estimated 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild, conservation programs are necessarily enlisting the help of local communities to increase the species’ chances of survival.

Founded in 1981, the International Snow Leopard Trust, which monitors the movements of the solitary cat in China, India, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, and Pakistan, also gives poverty-stricken local women training and equipment to produce camel-wool and related products which are sold internationally and via the Snow Leopard Trust online store (

In this way, the women are able to afford food, medicine, and school bills, and the herding males no longer have to poach endangered snow leopards to survive. All profits are invested back into community conservation projects.

In Mongolia, the Trust, which is funded mainly by individual donors, members, and business partnerships, is also trying to ensure locals get the high price of the wool they deserve. By providing families with a regular buyer, rather than traveling traders, participants often increase their income from 25 to 40 percent.

Though snow leopards are sometimes poached for their pelts and bones, they are mostly killed in retaliation for preying on domestic livestock. Participants, of whom there are over 400, are learning to develop sustainable herding practices such as smaller herd sizes, so that there is more natural prey for the snow leopards. In addition, participants sign a pledge to stop the poaching of all snow leopards and their prey, and a cash bonus is given once a year to each compliant participant. If one person violates the contract, the entire community loses the bonus. Ecological workshops, eco-camps, newsletters, posters and other resources help raise awareness in villages.

Things are also looking up in the Himalayan provinces of India, the third most populous snow leopard region after China and Mongolia. Launched in March, Project Snow Leopard will include the promotion of alternative livelihoods for local people and public awareness activities.

In Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir) and Nepal, where Peter Matthiessen wrote his epic book while researching the snow leopard with George Schaller in the 1970s, the Snow Leopard Conservancy ( has launched a successful incentive program, whereby locals set up bed and breakfast accommodation for visitors in a spare room at a cost of about $13 a night. The organization also organizes snow leopard treks.

PermaLink for this story:

SLN Steering Committee member Alexander Esipov receives the Freeman Award for Snow Leopard Conservation from the Snow Leopard Trust.

Snow Leopard Trust announces recipient of the annual


Freeman Award for Snow Leopard Conservation


Each year the Snow Leopard Trust and the family of Helen Freeman select one person to receive the Freeman Award for Snow Leopard Conservation.  The selection is based on the person’s commitment and contributions to conserving snow leopards in the wild.  The award carries with it a $1,000 USD prize.  This is only the second year the prize has been awarded, the first Freeman Award having gone to A. Bayarjargal of Mongolia.


This year’s recipient is Alexander Esipov of Uzbekistan.


Alexander (Sasha) Esipov is the Deputy Director of Chatkal Nature Reserve and researcher with the Institute of Zoology of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. He has compiled nearly 3 decades of field work primarily in the study of mammals of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states. He developed a love of felids in the early 1980s and this brought him to snow leopards, a species he has worked tirelessly to protect ever since.  He was a founding member of Asia Irbis in 1998, a regional NGO devoted to conserving snow leopards in the wild.  Asia-Irbis formulated an action plan for the protection of Snow Leopard within the former Soviet Union and implemented several conservation projects with support from the International Snow Leopard Trust.


In 2002 Sasha attended the Snow Leopard Survival Summit in Seattle and played a very active role in development of the Snow Leopard Survival Strategy.  He is now serving his second term on the Steering Committee of the Snow Leopard Network (SLN).


With funding from an SLT Small Grant, Sasha co-authored a Snow Leopard Conservation Action Plan for Uzbekistan in 2003.  In 2006 he led an effort to collect and catalog all of the Russian-language snow leopard literature and make it available through the on-line bibliography of the SLN.  He helped to write English summaries for nearly 300 scholarly articles.  This undertaking has provided broad access to an incredible amount of previously published but difficult to access information.  


In all of his efforts, Sasha is joined by his wife Elena, also a wildlife biologist, making them a real snow leopard family. 


Alexander Esipov epitomizes the kind of drive and ambition to save snow leopards that Helen Freeman would certainly have appreciated. 


Congratulations to Alexander, the second recipient of the annual Freeman Award for Snow Leopard Conservation!