When studying snow leopard ecology here in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, patience is the name of the game. After a month of thin mountain air, below-freezing temperatures, and near-misses, we got the lucky break we'd been waiting for. On the morning we collared Ak Shoola, which means “bright light” in Kyrgyz, the trap was triggered at 4:36 AM, right around first light. Seconds later, the sound of the automatic monitoring system jolted me awake. I woke Martin and Joki and the three of us bundled up against the snow and wind and set out for the trap site. Martin Gilbert is a field veterinarian from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Joki Bektemirov a Sarychat-Ertash ranger. The three of us trekked two miles down the valley, passing a herd of argali rams grazing in the gray dawn light. After fording a river swollen with glacial runoff, we finally reached the mouth of the canyon where the trap was located.
Our view of the trap was obscured; we had intentionally chosen a route that kept us hidden from the snow leopard to help her remain calm. I left Martin and Joki at the base of the ridge and climbed up to see if I could catch a glimpse of the big cat. Just as I crested the ridge, I saw her calmly peering at me from behind a rock about ten meters away.
I watched her just long enough to estimate her weight and then slipped out of sight back to the team, doing a few silent fist pumps as I went. After darting her and waiting for the anesthesia to kick in, we quickly moved in to remove the snare, check her vitals, and fit the radio collar. We took special care to keep her warm while we worked. Within an hour, she was awake and walking away from site. I stayed nearby to make sure the collar was functioning and that she continued to show signs of recovering. Later that afternoon, I went back again to check on her—to my delight, she had fully recovered and moved elsewhere.
A lot of people ask what the purpose of collaring is, and the answer is that every collared animal helps us answer critical questions about snow leopard ecology and conservation. Not only that, each animal also helps us new questions to ask, research, and answer. From estimating global population sizes to illuminating how snow leopards hunt, raise cubs and look for territory, Ak Shoola will provide a legacy of knowledge that will benefit the entire species… as well as the ecosystems they call home.