Panthera has received questions and expressions of concern about the collaring of snow leopards and other wild cats for scientific research. In response, we have prepared the following explanation:
Panthera’s scientists have safely captured hundreds of cats of many species on every continent where cats occur. We place an absolute premium on the safety of cats and we have many decades of collective experience in ensuring that the collaring process meets the highest possible safety standards. By undertaking rigorous science, we hope to ensure their persistence so that future generations can also treasure them.
What are the benefits of collaring wild snow leopards?
GPS collaring is one of the most critical research tools used by Panthera’s scientists. This tool helps to identify snow leopards’ home ranges, movements, habitat use, and spatial dynamics in relation to their habitat, prey and anthropogenic factors.
The 15th snow leopard collared through the Panthera-SLT study in Mongolia. October 2012
Utilizing rigorous scientific research while developing and disseminating improved methods of monitoring snow leopard and prey populations, such as GPS collaring, Panthera has and continues to contribute a wealth of ground-breaking scientific knowledge on this enigmatic and understudied species. Applying results from scientific investigation, Panthera shapes national conservation policies in snow leopard countries, creating regional and country-specific action plans with local governments to impact snow leopard conservation at the highest possible levels.
How do you know these collars even work? Do you test them before they go on wild snow leopards?
We have gone to the extreme of testing our collars on captive zoo snow leopards that have been sedated for annual exams. We then monitored their reaction to the collar for 30 days and compared that to observations made for 30 days before putting the collar on. Although a zoo cat does not lead the same life as a wild one, we saw no ill effects of the collar, and after 5 minutes, there were no attempts by the cats to remove the collar. In addition, the collars tested on snow leopards in zoos were nearly 1 ½ times as large as those we use now.
What happens when the snow leopards are collared?
Snow leopards and other cats are safely sedated before they are collared. The amount and type of the sedative is chosen carefully for the species and weight of the cat by Panthera’s scientists. The sedative is then delivered with as little stress to the animal as possible and while the cat is sedated, steps are taken to ensure its comfort. Scientists often put a blindfold over the cat’s eyes to protect them from light and take other measures to make sure that the cat is comfortable. During sedation, scientists get an overall sense of the animal's health and take specific measurements including the size, weight, gender, and distinguishing characteristics of the snow leopard or other big cat. A blood sample is also taken for DNA analysis. Medication and/or antibiotics are sometimes given if our scientists feel that this would be of benefit to the particular animal. For example, if the cat is burdened with parasites, there are sometimes medications that can be given to help. Finally, the scientists always stay with the cat until after it has awoken and moved away, to be sure there are no ill effects of the sedation or the collaring.
Do the collars stay on for the cats’ whole lifetime?
No. All collars are programmed to drop off after a specified brief period of time (currently 18-24 months) and none are on the cat for their lifetime. It is highly beneficial that the collars drop off at a programmed time because it means we do not have to capture the cat a second time to remove the collar and we can download any data on the collar that was not successfully sent via satellite when it was on the cat.
How big is the GPS collar?
The size of the collars used to monitor, and ultimately protect, snow leopards has actually decreased substantially over the past several years, and is now much smaller than collars used as recently as 2006. However, we are always seeking smaller collars with longer lasting batteries (thus reducing the frequency of replacing old collars). All the components (GPS, Sat phone, etc.) are very small and barely stick up above the collar belt. The current collar model we are using weighs about 600 grams, or just under a pound and a half. Some researchers believe that no collar should exceed 3% of the animal’s body weight. Ours are far below that and we continue to try to reduce size and weight.
Do GPS collars compromise the snow leopard’s ability to hunt?
In the wild we are very certain that the collars have little or no effect on snow leopards’ abilities to hunt. We have seen young females, the smallest of the cats wearing our collars, take very large wild goats (ibex) with no difficulty. Some of the prey taken have been more than twice the size of the snow leopard. So the critical issue of stealth and effectively killing prey is not compromised.
Do the GPS collars affect the cats’ ability to camouflage?
We have also used a variety of collar colors and have found that black is the most effective at maintaining the cats’ camouflage ability. At present, no one is making a camouflage pattern collar, but it seems that is not necessary. Most of the snow leopard prey animals have poor color vision, so what may seem obvious to a human is much harder for them to detect, so the collar does little to impact stealth during a hunt.
Do you use any other methods to gather data about these big cats?
We use many non-intrusive methods to secure data such as camera trapping, fecal genetics, surveys that look at snow leopard signs (scrapes, feces, paw prints, etc.) and community involvement which brings much local knowledge into the picture.
Panthera's Snow Leopard Field Scientist, Örjan Johansson, examines Ariun – the 16th snow leopard collared through the Panthera-SLT study in Mongolia. April 2012
Learn more about Panthera’s Snow Leopard Conservation Program.