Meet the snow leopard matchmaker

June 25, 2009
Matt West, Australasian Snow Leopard Studbook keeper. Photo by Sibylle.

Matt West, Australasian Snow Leopard Studbook keeper. Photo by Sibylle.

I had a good chat with Matt West today at Healesville Sanctuary which is part of Zoos Victoria / Melbourne Zoo. Matt’s claim to fame (one of them anyway) is that he’s the matchmaker for Snow Leopard breeding in Australian and New Zealand Zoos. As keeper of the Australasian Snow Leopard Studbook it’s his job to help zoos wanting to breed.

“We have to chose pairs as genetically diverse as possible. It’s important we protect against inbreeding and disease.” Matt was responsible for choosing Leon and Meo at Melbourne Zoo as a mating pair and he’s obviously done a good job – Tashi and Gobi are two very healthy and handsome cubs.

Matt works with the Snow Leopard Studbook keepers from all around the world, specifically in Europe, the US and Japan. The global Snow Leopard Studbook Keeper is Leif Blomqvist at Helsinki Zoo. Leif started the Studbook in 1976 when he did a massive bit of research to find out which zoos in the world had snow leopards, the gender and age of them and the source from which they came. Since then all snow leopards in zoos around the world have been listed in this book and breeding controlled to help the species develop a healthy population in Zoos.

Endangered mountain pigmy possum. Photo Melbourne Zoo.

Endangered mountain pigmy possum. Photo Matt West.

Matt is passionate about snow leopards and keen to see more bred in Australia where there is now a good body of knowledge about them. But he’s other passion also takes up a lot of time – the local endangered Mountain Pygymy Possum. These tiny little possums are native to our state and under threat from habitat loss and feral predation (the usual suspects unfortunately – dogs, foxes and cats.)  Recent bushfires in our state threatened their habitat around the Mt buller area. Ironically during the devastating February Bushfire the Pygmy Possum and the endangered Tasmanian Devils had to be evacuated from Healesville when it seemed the Sanctuary was under threat. Luckily the sanctuary wasn’t touched.

Adult mountain pigmy possum. Photo Melbourne Zoo.

Adult mountain pigmy possum. Photo Matt West.

Matt and others are working with a captive breeding program at the Sanctuary with the hope that some of them may be able to be released into the wild. You can read detail about the Melbourne Zoo program here.


Hot and cold cats at new snow leopard exhibit Central Park Zoo

June 22, 2009

Chocolate and Zoe strut their stuff at the brand new $10 m Allison Maher Stern Snow Leopard exhibit. Hot and cold rocks, scent enrichments, waterfalls, jungle, tree ropes, hiding food tidbits and more. This must be one of the most rich snow leopard environments in any zoo. If we must continue to have snow leopards in zoos it would be good to think that in years to come all snow leopards in all zoos around the world have such a living space … and more.

Snow leopards take Manhattan

June 22, 2009
Central Park Zoo snow loepard exhibit. Photo by WCS / Julie Larsen Maher

Hot and cold rocks. Central Park Zoo snow leopard exhibit. Photo by WCS / Julie Larsen Maher

Last week three elusive snow leopards were seen for the first time in Central Park, New York. Central Park Zoo that is, with its brand new Allison Maher Stern Snow Leopard Exhibit. The three cats were named by school children, and are two females, Zoe and Chocolate, and one male, Bo.

The exhibit must be one of the most state of the art in the world and cost over $10m. Its got heated rocks to take the winter chill off and shallow caves and trees that are strategically placed for keeping cool in summer. The area has been specifically designed for the snow leopards and includes many behavioral enrichments like interesting scents (of rabbits!) developed by the World Conservation Society. The design focuses on improving cat health and well being through stimulating  exercises and activities for mind and body.

Visitors can get up close and personal through two close up glass areas and there is a lot of interactive graphic material for learning more about snow leopards and WCS’ work in the zoo and in the field to save these endangered cats.

First snow leopard sighting in Kashmir in 10 years

June 22, 2009

“It was the shortest seven minutes of my life” Aishwarya Maheshwari, a researcher with WWF India (a wildlife protection group) said after making the first confirmed sighting of a snow leopard in Kashmir in over 10 years. The region has seen a decade of political conflict and fighting between India and its neighbor, Pakistan.

Maheshwari and his three field assistants were observing a herd of Asiatic Ibex (a type of mountain goat) almost 4000m above sea level in the mountains of Kashmir, northern India when they saw pug marks and scat of what looked like a carnivore.

Suddenly there was a cloud of dust and through their binoculars they spotted a snow leopard chasing the Ibex who were running in all directions. The researchers were able to watch the cat for 7 minutes before it ran away.
This is good news for Maheshwari and his WWF India team who are doing a baseline wildlife study of the area.

Wild snow leopard released

June 11, 2009
Wild snow leopard about to be released in China. Photo Xinhua

Wild snow leopard about to be released in China. Photo Xinhua

A female snow leopard was released back into the wild in northwest China this week after receiving care for a respiratory tract infection. She hesitated a few seconds after the cage was opened, then rushed to the woods without looking back at the people in the wildlife protection group who had taken care of her since she was found 6 weeks ago.  “She was exhausted and panting when she was found. We believed she was too sick to hunt from an infection and so she came into the village to look for food,” said Zhao Chongxue, a researcher with the Gansu Endangered Animal Research Center.  Staff added medicine to food and water for the snow leopard for 10 days essentially curing her, Zhao added.
The animal is listed as endangered in China, the same level as the giant panda. Full article Snow Leopard Network.

A good news story, let’s hope the local population can help protect her from poachers who may have been following the news. According to the Research Center staff, the area where they released her is ideal snow leopard habitat, sparsely populated and a lot of prey species.

Snow leopards and “gross national happiness”

June 10, 2009
Bhutanese King wearing his traditional yellow robe. Photo by Sibylle

Bhutanese King wearing his traditional yellow robe. Photo by Sibylle

Bhutan is the tiny Himalayan kingdom east of Nepal and south of China, that invented the idea of “gross national happiness” being as important as “gross national product. With a population of  only 600,000 (mainly Buddhists), the country’s mountains are excellent habitat for the endangered snow leopard.

I visited Bhutan recently and spoke to many local people who knew about snow leopards but who’d never seen one and didn’t know anyone who had. The current young King is very pro-environment. Projects were visible everywhere during my visit, like school kids doing community work cleaning up litter every Saturday morning in the main towns and a town in the hills being converted to solar energy because the endangered Black cranes were killing themselves on the electricity lines each season as they came to feed.

Map of Bhutan. Source Wikipedia

Map of Bhutan. Source Wikipedia

There are probably only about 100-200 snow leopards left in the wild in Bhutan and WWF is working with Bhutan government agencies on snow leopard conservation. So far they’ve set up a payment scheme for livestock killed by snow leopard in order to stop retribution killing, taught local staff conservation practices and set up an antipoaching squad. Let’s hope this work leads to more “gross national happiness” for Bhutanese people and the snow leopards sharing their magnificent mountains.

Interview at Melbourne Zoo on the older snow leopards

June 5, 2009


Gregor and Shimbu Melb Zoo. Photo by Jay Town Herald Sun

Gregor and Shimbu Melb Zoo. Photo by Jay Town Herald Sun

Here’s an interview I did recently with Adrian “Howie” Howard, Senior Carnivore Keeper at Melbourne Zoo. He’s talking about the two old snow leopards.
“Simbu and Gregor, our two snow leopards that were together for 15 years. They obviously formed a bond over the years, and looked for one another and spent time together. After he died last year Shimbu would call for him in the mornings, she did that for a few months so it was obvious she missed him.

She still calls occasionally but she’s a relaxed cat these days. She likes her food and has now accepted that she doesn’t have to compete with him any more for her tucker. She’s retired now and she can do what she likes. If it’s a little bit warm she’s straight back inside in the back and that’s OK with us.
She’s a relaxed cat, a terrific cat. She’s a great character, as was Gregor. Gregor was one of those cats that you remember for your whole career. I’ve been here for 15 years so I’ve worked with Gregor and Shimmy for my whole career. Losing an animal like him is very difficult, he was a special cat and I’ve been privileged to look after him.
Shimmy’s doing well for an old girl. We gave Shimbu a full medical a few months ago, we gave her an anesthetic, she’s a bit hard of hearing and her eye sight isn’t what it used to be and she’s also a bit stiff, but hey, she’s 20 years old, that’s seriously old – over 100 years old for a human.”