In passing through the homes of the Buddhist community in The Last Village—the closest humans get to snow leopard range in Myanmar—we asked if they’ve heard of the elusive cats or if they had ever seen a skin or other parts. The answers were always “no.” The cat was completely unknown to them.
In retrospect, this might not be too surprising. I can think of few habitat comparisons as different as jungle and the high elevation range that typifies snow leopards. Most of the people living in these tropical forests knew little about the lands above treeline, much less that a large cat might be there. We would be going into a region and landscape where our Myanmar partners had very little exposure and experience.
Yet, some of the villagers had ventured upward and northward. In his youth, the elderly hunter and his peers would make the trek high up into the mountains to hunt for meat, likely in the form of ungulates like blue sheep, takin, and goral.
On May 21st, four days after departing Dahawndum and following an acrobatic bushwhack up and down dangerous jungle slopes, we set our first base camp at 3500 meters (11,500 feet). Gazing up at the cloud-enshrouded peaks and ridgelines 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) above us, we recognized one immediate challenge: An incredible amount of snow had persisted through the warmer spring temperatures. The snow not only defied full spring melt off on the slopes above, but also in the valley bottoms, where large snow fields smothered much of the terrain.
The deep, wet snow was a physical challenge, as well as an impediment to our surveying effort. When looking for snow leopards in a previously undocumented region, one of the first places we look for sign is in the flat areas at the base of cliffs, a geographic feature targeted by snow leopards to spray, scrape, and defecate as scent marks within their home ranges. Because these marking sites are often revisited, they make excellent locations for camera traps. Unfortunately, deep snow filled in many of these target areas.
A second target site for our camera traps is along ridgelines, which snow leopards frequently follow to navigate the landscape. These provide an appropriately narrow, linear feature to target as detection sites for the cat—and we can ideally build a rock cairn on a barren ridgeline for staging a camera. But the deep snow precluded access to stones. Plus, as the snow melted, any camera set on top of it would shift, likely fall, and perhaps even be lost as it tumbled from the precariously steep ridgeline down the slopes below.
These challenges, on top of the inherent difficulty in navigating the landscape (to be covered in the next blog!), meant that our team had to do significantly more reconnaissance and cover much greater distances on a daily basis than would be necessary with less snow. The team’s incredible effort and tenacity paid off: We placed 80 camera traps in spots likely to detect snow leopards and many other animals navigating the terrain, including potential prey species.
Now, the ultimate question: After covering all of that ground, did we find definitive sign of snow leopards? The quick answer is no. The follow up question: Do we think snow leopards could be there? That answer is a bit more nuanced.
Although this year appeared to exceed average snowfall, it is likely that every year, during the winter months, deep snow levels eliminate any vegetation that would support local ungulate populations. Without prey, there are no predators. However, there is an incredibly productive spring green-up that was just getting underway during our visit. Fresh sign of blue sheep, goral, takin, and leaf deer was apparent, suggesting that as the snow melts and new vegetation emerges, ungulates are moving back into the area.
It is highly probable that carnivores, including snow leopards, would track the ungulate movements and follow them into our study area. These kinds of seasonal shifts in animal distributions are not unknown.
In late August, our Myanmar Forestry colleagues began the return trek to Hkakabo Razi National Park to collect the 80 camera traps. In addition, the 19 scat samples collected during our time in the field are currently being analyzed in a lab. In a few short months, we may finally have an answer about whether the “mysterious cat of the mountains” seen by traditional Myanmar Tibetan Buddhist hunters has been the snow leopard all along.
Learn more about Panthera's Snow Leopard Program here.