TECHNOLOGY MEETS BASIC WILDLIFE BIOLOGY - HOW THE SYNERGY BETWEEN LAB AND FIELD PEOPLE IS PROVIDING A GLIMPSE INTO SNOW LEOPARD LIFE
The snow leopard is the least understood big cat for three main reasons;
- they are very secretive,
- occupy extremely rugged environments, and
- many of their range countries are logistically difficult to work in.
Over the years, my snow leopard work has involved meeting people—from herders to local biologists, to wildlife officers to geneticists—from all across the globe. This year was particularly rewarding for me, as I reflect on my travels. Nepal and Bhutan were two places I had the honor of visiting, and working with both international and local partners on developing snow leopard conservation research initiatives. One thing always strikes me: despite cultural differences, we all share the same dedication and love for nature, and this in turn creates a mutual understanding that is the foundation of effective collaborations.
To date, we have had little quantitative information on snow leopard population trends. Most of the surveys done by biologists have focused on sign left in the environment; snow leopards leave very distinct scrapes and tracks. But the problem is, of course, when you are lucky enough to find a scrape site you really don’t know how many snow leopards were involved … this is where modern technology comes in. By checking the DNA in scats left by a snow leopard, we can take advantage of the same methods that forensic scientists use at crime scenes to find who is responsible. We now have another effective tool to help us understand the mysterious Ghost of the Himalaya.
Our most extensive noninvasive genetic surveys have been carried out through our close partnership with Dr. B. Munkhtsog of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Irbis Mongolia, and other colleagues including N. Galsandorj. Since 2007, we have surveyed areas in the Gobi Desert and also the Mongolian Altai. This work has been funded by generous grants from the Adelman Foundation, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, National Geographic Society, SeaWorld & Busch Garden Conservation Fund, Shared Earth Foundation, the Snow Leopard Network’s Conservation Grants Program and Texas A&M University. This year we were able to examine more sites in western Mongolia, and also work with additional partners such as WWF-Mongolia.
As we conduct genetic analysis at Texas A&M University, we are slowly getting a better glimpse into the distribution and abundance of snow leopards. By looking at other parts of Mongolia in the coming years, we will be able to get a picture of the key habitat and corridors used by these cats, and how their populations are connected in this mountainous landscape.
This work is a great example of the importance of developing close partnerships between diverse groups. Surveys such as the ones in Mongolia depend on support and participation from not only foreign and domestic scientists, but also Mongolian Academy of Sciences and other government organizations, NGOs, National Parks, rangers, administrators, and—above all—the local people who share their land with snow leopards. It is really only through the participation of local communities that any conservation and research activities can be successful.
We hope to obtain additional support from other donors and institutions this coming year, so that we can continue to expand these projects, and also begin incorporating the information into conservation initiatives.
After all, ensuring stable snow leopard populations and a healthy ecosystem is our ultimate, shared goal.