Despite studies dating back to the early 1980s, even the most basic life history questions for snow leopards remain unanswered. Until recently, there was no reliable information on even basic population structure for these mysterious cats. Data such as birth and mortality rates, cub survival, or dispersal was nonexistent. Two intensive studies of snow leopards using VHF collars were undertaken in Nepal (1980s) and Mongolia (1990s) but logistic and technological constraints produced unclear results. Yet gathering the necessary scientific data to inform conservation planning is the first step toward saving this species.
With that aim in mind, Panthera, in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) initiated the first ever long-term comprehensive study of the species. The study was launched in the summer of 2008 with the establishment of a permanent research center in Mongolia’s South Gobi province. The South Gobi presents an ideal opportunity for investigating not only the ecology of the snow leopard in good habitat, but also allows the first examination of the snow leopard’s landscape ecology in marginal areas, areas in which the snow leopard is increasingly forced to travel, and to survive. Panthera captured this critical data, to inform planning of snow leopard corridors and other similar large landscape scale initiatives as the Snow Leopard Program grows.
In 2012, Panthera concluded its involvement in the field aspects of what is now the longest and most comprehensive study of snow leopards ever undertaken, collecting invaluable data about their home ranges and habitat needs. There were a number of firsts for this project, including the first collaring of a female snow leopard and one of its sub-adult offspring, allowing us to observe when and how the maternal bond is broken and the young become independent. It also produced the first ever videos of a snow leopard mother and cubs in birthing dens in Mongolia, and the first den visits by snow leopard researchers to weigh, sex, and microchip cubs. These rare images and experiences were profoundly engaging—our pictures of the birthing den galvanized public support and inspired at least 32 news stories— and have been critical to our understanding of snow leopard ecology.
Panthera will continue to analyze the substantial amount of data the study has generated and help translate that into conservation action. Meanwhile, field research and conservation in Mongolia will continue through Panthera’s long-time partner, the Snow Leopard Trust. Panthera will now focus on establishing and expanding snow leopard conservation programs in other critical sites in Tajikistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan.
Panthera mounts high-tech digital camera-traps along mountain passes to capture images of snow leopards. Using these photographs, we can identify individual snow leopards from their unique spot patterns and estimate the number of snow leopards remaining in the wild. This camera trap image revealed the arrival of two new snow leopard cubs near our South Gobi, Mongolia research site. Once they are grown, we hope to fix these cubs with tracking collars.
- GPS collaring to assess snow leopard home ranges, movements, habitat use, and spatial dynamics in relation to habitat, prey and anthropogenic factors
- Non-invasive fecal genetics (supported by the use of trained scat dogs) and camera trapping
- Diet composition surveys
- Assessing livestock and human land use patterns and how they influence snow leopard behavior and numbers
- Snow Leopard Trust (SLT)
- Mongolian Academy of Sciences
- Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism
- Improving/maintaining research center infrastructure
- Providing training for national and regional snow leopard biologists and conservationists in best practices
- Bringing graduate students from around the world onto the long-term study to undertake much needed research
- Assessing sociological aspects of snow leopard-livestock conflict and testing of novel mitigation methods
Learn more about Panthera's Snow Leopard Conservation projects in: