I could hardly believe my eyes. There she was: a snow leopard. Setting out from our camp in Kyrgyzstan’s Sarychat Ertash Reserve, the steep nighttime hike and terror of fording a frigid, rushing river in giant hip waders was more than worth this moment.
But I couldn’t take the time to appreciate this snow leopard’s humbling presence yet—for the next 45 minutes it was strictly business. Our team fell easily into our usual roles to “process” a cat. First, veterinarian Dr. Kevin Castle immobilized the cat with a dart gun. Then, he and our project’s Principal Investigator, Shannon Kachel, removed the humane snare used to trap the cat and shifted her—a female between three and four years old—to the sleeping pad laid out by myself and volunteer Connor Meyer.
While Kevin assessed her vitals (healthy!), Shannon rapidly affixed a radio collar—our first priority after ensuring her health. We christened her “F3,” as she was the third female collared as part of our study. We’re examining how snow leopards utilize their environment and interact with the wolves and other collared cats with which they share habitat and prey.
Continuing to work like a well-oiled machine, while Kevin drew blood samples and Shannon measured the cat, Connor and I took skin, oral, and rectal samples with sterile swabs for a gut microbiome study. We determined her weight with a handheld hanging scale (a healthy 35.4 kilograms or 78 pounds) and then removed all of our equipment from the area where she would recover from the anesthetic. While Kevin prepared the medication to reverse the sedative, the rest of us slipped in for a quick photo.
That was the moment it finally hit me: I was in the presence of a wild snow leopard. I’ve devoted my career to this species; their prey, habitat, and the people lucky enough to share it, but had never seen one in the field. In the decade I’ve been working with these enigmatic cats, the most common question from people is always, “Have you seen a snow leopard in the wild?” I had hardly dared to dream about the possibility, instead stifling the inane, irrational, and tough-to-admit jealousy of my colleagues who have seen snow leopards in their natural habitat.
It was a long road to this point. I first encountered snow leopards while working with them as a zoo keeper at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. My coworkers and I were a very important part of these captive cats’ lives—the source of meals, enrichment (entertainment), and any movement between exhibit areas. I’ve spent plenty of time scratching snow leopards (always through a fence!) on their shoulders and flanks when they have requested such attention – these were intimate relationships. I moved on to in situ snow leopard research and conservation work in 2009.
It was very different to touch a wild cat – lean, taught with muscle, with serious business to attend to. We were merely an interruption on her way to important tasks like finding dinner. I didn’t have to touch a wild cat to know our work was valuable. But it was a powerful, reinforcing moment for me that affirmed my decision to pursue a career in conservation as the right one. We need to save these cats, for their very existence is essential to the web of life.
A common question my colleagues and I face is “Why save snow leopards?” This query has been met many times before with relevant, practical explanations; as apex predators, they are critical components to the ecosystem; saving cats with large home ranges saves habitat for many other species; et cetera. I agree with all of this reasoning. But ultimately, in my heart, I want to save these cats because of their intrinsic value. It’s simply the right thing to do—they must exist, or this earth is all the poorer for it.
Sometimes lightning strikes twice. On my last day in camp that season, we were fortunate to collar another female snow leopard—now known as “F4.” I guess it wasn’t “once in a lifetime” after all.
Learn more about snow leopards and their threats here.
Read more about our research collaring snow leopards and wolves(!) here.
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