THE SNOW LEOPARD
The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is among the rarest and most charming big cats in the world. Found only in a few remote mountain areas of Central Asia, from Nepal to Siberia, it is estimated that just a few thousand individuals survive, but its elusiveness and arduous habitat make it a particularly difficult species to study.
According to the Snow Leopard Network, a panel gathering all the major international experts on this species, the main priority is obtaining estimates on the consistency of its populations. It is estimated that a good amount of snow leopards can dwell in Mongolian mountains, but these populations have only been studied occasionally. Before this projects no one had ever studied the Mount Altai population, located in North-West Mongolia at the border with Russia.
The Tropical Biodiversity Division of MUSE is credited with years of experience in the study of elusive mammals. For this reason, in 2015, the Museum was invited by a Mongolian NGO (Green Initiative), who has an Italian biologist as a scientific consultant, and by the Government Agency in charge of the protection of Altai Mountains (Mongolian Altai Range Protected Areas) to lead the first scientific study on the consistency of snow leopard populations in this area.
In March 2015 the first expedition started the research. The main technique employed is photo-trapping, which allows not only to detect the presence of elusive species such as the snow leopard, but also to identify the photographed individuals from the typical spots on their fur, thus obtaining the necessary information to assess their abundance. The Natural History Museum of Denmark is a partner of the project together with other researchers who have joined it like Fridolin Zimmermann, expert of carnivores from KORA (Swiss center for the study of fauna). Two professional cameramen took part to the expedition, and subsequently realized the documentary movie Ghost of the mountains.
The expedition had the goal to place the first 25 photo-traps of a total grid of 50 to cover an area of about 1.000 square kilometers between 2.000 and 3.000 meters of altitude in the study area, the National Park ‘Siilkhem B’. At the same time, the team researchers trained local staff in the research techniques employed, so that they could proceed to complete the sampling and remove the second trap grid in June 2015.
The setup of photo traps was possible thanks to two research teams who, with the help of local assistants, identified likely passing places for snow leopards based on tracks on snow, urine marking on rocks or other signs. In spite of the freezing temperatures at the beginning of the studies, with low points of -20°C, all photo traps were set up without problems.
THE FIRST RESULTS AND THE FUTURE
Photo traps yielded over 2.500 pictures on 2.225 total days. However, over 2/3 of images were of cattle and only about 700 of wild fauna. Snow leopards were only captured in 17 pictures, and detailed analysis of their fur revealed it was only three different individuals - a remarkably small amount considering the wide study area. Other photographed species included the Siberian ibex, the main prey of snow leopards, and 9 more species including wolves, wolverines, steppe polecats, and Siberian marmots.
These first results are indicative of an over-exploited area for grazing, where snow leopards are present but at very low densities. The scarce amount of ibex pictures and the quasi-null superposition of the sites where it was found and those of domestic cattle further suggests that breeding restricts the natural prey of snow leopards in fringe areas not used for livestock.
If, on the one hand, more research will be needed to better assess these first results, the study showed that snow leopards in the area are strongly threatened by anthropic pressure in the main form of intensive cattle breeding. This is caused y the increasing global demand of cashmere wool, which led Mongolia to be among the main producers and thus blow up natural breeding to densities no longer tolerable for the delicate ecological balance of these areas.
MUSE researchers and partners will carry on the research in cooperation with the Mongolian NGO Green Initiative who, starting from 2016, will proceed to field investigations and later with a new expedition of the international team in 2017. The goal is to enlarge the study area by repeating the research in other areas if the region, so to draw more general conclusions on the conservation state of snow leopards in the area and thus actively contribute to define the best strategies to reduce the chances this important and charming species disappears.
PRODUCED BY THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF DENMARK / MUSE SCIENCE MUSEUM OF TRENTO
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