The “Ghost Cat” is real. This moniker for the snow leopard makes sense; they are rarely seen in the wild with the naked eye, but if you know where to look and what to look for in the 12 Central Asian countries they occupy, you can find evidence of their presence. Well-placed remote cameras provide glimpses, but only one thing gives a complete picture of a snow leopard’s life: a GPS tracking collar.
In 2015, I joined Panthera’s Snow Leopard Team at a wildlife conservancy in the Tien Shan Mountains in southeastern Kyrgyzstan near the border of China. The team’s objective was to safely capture and collar one or more snow leopards as part of an ongoing ecological study to learn how snow leopards interact with habitat, prey, other carnivores and people. As a veterinarian, my goal was to ensure the health and safety of any snow leopard we captured and collared. Unfortunately, no snow leopards were captured during that visit. A few months later, I returned to a different site, the Sarychat Ertash Reserve, for another try.
On Sunday, October 2, our team of six was awoken at daybreak by Shannon Kachel, the ongoing study’s principal investigator in Kyrgyzstan. He had been monitoring the electronic trap signals throughout the night and moments before that trap had triggered an alert. We had already had a few false alarms and near captures in the preceding two weeks, but this time was different. The signal came from one of our prime trap locations high up the mountainside across the valley. As I looked up towards those mountains, I could see that the snow level had dropped significantly—more of the mountain, including where we would be climbing, was covered in snow.
All of us in camp quickly prepared for the long 2.5-mile trek up to the trap location. It was misting as we crossed the creeks adjacent to camp, and by the time we hiked up the drainage, the mist had evolved into a heavy, wet snow. I had made this climb several times already, but this time my lungs and legs were burning as we rushed to get the trap location. Finally, we reached the snare… and the snow leopard in it. Crouched low against the adjacent wall of rock, the big cat was remarkably difficult to see, illustrating just how effectively their fur blends into the mountainous terrain in which they live.
After temporarily tranquilizing the snow leopard, we gathered around him in the thickly falling snow. We quickly ascertained that it was a male (the first in our study!) weighed about 45 kg or 99 lbs., and was in excellent physical condition. In addition to fitting the leopard with a GPS collar, we took body measurements and photographs and collected blood and fur samples for a general health assessment and genetic analysis. After we finished, I administered the sedation antidote. The leopard woke up a few minutes later, gradually rising and climbing up and over the nearby rocks. It didn’t take long for him to silently disappear into mountain above us.
At the time, I was solely focused on the care of this amazing wild creature. Only several days later, when GPS signals showed that M1 was active and had moved far down the mountain range to the east, did the enormity of the experience sink in. The events of October 2 were many months in the making—and ones I won’t soon forget.