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Scientists Successfully Collar Three More Wild Snow Leopards in Mongolia

Post submitted by Matthias Fiechter. 

GPS collars will allow Snow Leopard Trust researchers to better understand the elusive species.

In a remarkably successful expedition, three more snow leopards have been equipped with GPS collars in the Tost Nature Reserve in Mongolia’s South Gobi province this April. Two of them are male, and one is female. They’re the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd snow leopards to be tracked with a GPS collar as part of an unprecedented long-term study into the behavior of these secretive cats being conducted by the Snow Leopard Trust and its Mongolian partner, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, in collaboration with the Mongolian Academy of Science and the Swedish University of Agriculture Sciences.

One male is about 4 years old, while the other appears younger and seems to have dispersed from his mother relatively recently. Young snow leopards separate from their mothers at around one and a half years. The female cat is thought to be about five years old. SLT scientists believe she has had at least one litter of cubs before.

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“The collars are programmed to drop off in about 24 months. During this time, their positions will be relayed to a satellite every few hours, from where they’ll be downloaded securely to designated computers. This allows us to track and map how they use their habitat and perhaps interact”, says Örjan Johansson, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Swedish biologist who led the recent expedition supported by Dr. Gustaf Samelius, SLT’s Assistant Director for Science. Having safely captured and collared wild snow leopards on exactly 50 occasions, Johansson is the world’s most accomplished snow leopard trapper.

The collars provide unprecedented data about the location and activity of the cats, which are regularly monitored by the scientists using a combination of GPS data monitoring and on-the-ground surveys to investigate how frequently they kill prey, and what type.

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The scientists will compare photos they took of the three newly collared snow leopards to the existing database of research camera photos to try and identify them. “We hope that we may have photos of the younger male from last year, when he must have still been with his mother. This would allow us to understand if he has already moved to a different part of the range since separating from her”, says Örjan Johansson.

Understanding how snow leopards use their habitat

When compared to data from other collared snow leopards, the movement patterns of these three cats will help the researchers paint a more complete picture of the famously elusive snow leopard’s ecology and behavior.

“Thanks to our previous collared cats, we have gained a relatively solid understanding of how snow leopards move around in the landscape, and how they use space over the long run”, Johansson says.

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“With two of these new cats, we’ve programmed their collars differently. During two intense periods this fall and next spring, they will send a location hourly. This will allow us for the first time to understand what a typical day in the life of a snow leopard may look like. It will give us much more detailed insights about the activity and movement patterns of the cats than ever. The data from these collars will also help us improve our sampling designs for estimating snow leopard populations using camera trapping or genetic sampling.”

A groundbreaking study

The Snow Leopard Trust’s ongoing long-term study in Mongolia is the world’s most comprehensive research initiative into the ecology and behavior of the elusive and endangered snow leopard. The 23 individual cats that have been collared as part of this study since its inception in 2008 make up nearly 50% of the currently available snow leopard GPS location data.

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In 2016, Örjan Johansson and his colleagues used data from this ground-breaking study to publish the most comprehensive scientific paper describing snow leopard home ranges based on GPS data. They found that these cats use significantly larger areas than previously thought. According to their results, an average male snow leopard’s home range is 220 sq km, or 3.5 times the size of Manhattan.

“We also found that nearly 40% of all protected areas in the snow leopard’s habitat are smaller than that”, Örjan Johansson says. “It’s pretty clear: protected areas alone can’t keep the snow leopard safe. We need to also partner with local communities and foster coexistence, through programs such as livestock insurance, or building better corrals.”

Acknowledgments:

This work is a result of the ongoing long-term ecological study on snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi province that’s been conducted by the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust since 2008*. We are thankful to the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences for partnering with us in this research endeavor.

Thank you to the following major funders: Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by the Whitley Fund for Nature; Acacia Conservation Fund; Regina Bauer Frankenberg Foundation; Woodland Park Zoo; Cat Life Foundation; Columbus Zoo & Aquarium; Disney Conservation Fund; David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation; Nordens Ark; Kolmarden Zoo; Nysether Family Foundation; Twycross Zoo; Edrington Group and Edrington Americas; People’s Trust for Endangered Species; Tautphaus Zoo; and the many other zoos and donors like you who have made this possible.

Special thanks go to all staff and volunteers who aided in the work.

*The conservation organization Panthera helped launch the study and was a partner until 2012