“A rare and precious sight” Tom McCarthy reflects on seeing a snow leopard and her three cubs in the wild

March 4, 2010

Tom McCarthy in Mongolia, working on Snow Leopard Trust 10 year project. Photo Snow Leopard Trust.

Tom Mc Carthy is Director of Snow Leopard Programs for Panthera (the conservation agency started in 2006 to protect the world’s 36 species of wild cats). He’s currently working on a long term snow leopard project in Mongolia but recently wrote about an magical moment 12 years ago when he saw an elusive snow leopard mother and her three cubs in the wild.

“Routinely eluded by these secretive cats, I didn’t expect to see her today. Then, like a ghost, she appeared from a brush thicket three hundred yards down slope. For the first two minutes, I didn’t breath, hoping not to attract her attention….

Then, with no concern for stealth, three balls of fur exploded from the brush, crashing into their mother’s legs. Cubs! The 2-month-olds tussled with each other and rolled into a shallow ravine. I tucked myself farther into the shadow of the boulder, but at this distance I was surely well hidden. I thought.


An instant later, the mother leopard turned slowly and looked toward me. She seemed to stare directly into my telescope, clearly not pleased. With that, she abruptly departed, urging the three cubs to follow. Stopping to pick up a straggler in her mouth, she topped the next ridge, and the family disappeared. I tracked her many times over the next 4 months, yet she never allowed another glimpse of those cubs. A dozen years later, I reflect on that day, and am content to have had a moment in the presence of such a rare and precious sight.”

More on Tom McCarthy’s conservation work on the Panthera website here.

Full story here.


New snow leopard research in Russia

February 22, 2010

Tuvan family in traditional clothing. Photo Wikipedia.

During February-March of 2010 the staff of the biosphere nature reserves “Sayano-Shushenskiy” and “Ubsunurskaya kotlovina” will be carrying out a census of the snow leopard  in the south of the Republic of Tuva, a tiny area in far south Siberia, with just over 300,000 people and remote mountains. They will be supported by the WWF Russia. Snow leopards are called irbis in Russia.

“In the process of the field observations, information will be collected about poaching activities regarding this species, and also about cases of irbis attacks on livestock. Recommendations about protection of irbis in these centers of their range will be worked out on the basis of the results of field research,” – explained the co-ordinator of the project WWF, Mikhail Paltsin. More on this project here.

Snow leopards and tigers “sister species”

February 22, 2010

Siberian tigers also live in snow. But many other tigers live in jungles and tropical climates. Photo Wikipedia.

Scientists have conducted a DNA analysis of the big cats and found the tiger and snow leopard are “sister species”. Brian Davis, Dr. Gang Li and professor William Murphy published their findings in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution recently.

It has long been known that the five species of big cat, the tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar and snow leopard, which belong to the Panthera genus, and the two species of clouded leopard, are more closely related to each other than to other smaller cats. But the exact relationships between them have been hard to identify.

19th century painting of a tiger by Kuniyoshi Utagawa. Photo Wikipedia.

The researchers looked at differences and similarities between the big cats species in terms of the genetic information stored in their mitochondrial DNA, and the gender chromosomes. They found lions, leopards and jaguars were found to be the most tightly linked, with a common ancestor probably living about 4.3 to 3.8 million years ago.

But also at this same time (around 4 million years ago) the common ancestor of snow leopards and tigers appeared.

Today sadly both these beautiful cats have another thing in common – they are among the world’s most endangered big cats. Fewer than 3500 tigers are thought to survive in the wild and estimates for snow leopards vary from 3500 to 5000.

This year, the Chinese Year of the Tiger, is an opportunity to help protect both these cats and learn more about them and their habitat.

See more on the BBC website.

February 10, 2010

Orjan, with cute animal -not snow leopard! -back on the Snow Leopard Trust's Mongolia project. Photo from SLT Blog.

Orjan is a Swedish PhD student working at the base camp of the Snow Leopard Trust’s long-term research project in Mongolia. Last year he blogged about his work capturing, collaring and collecting valuable data from five of the wild cats.

The last few months he’s been away from the project but is now back for another six months of work adventures. Follow him as he blogs about snow leopards, Mongolia, the people, the culture, the freezing climate …and Chinese police dogs….on the Snow Leopard Trust’s Blog .

November 1, 2009
Tracking snow leopards in Mongolia. Map from Snow Leopard Trust blog.

Tracking snow leopards in Mongolia. The different colors represent the different snow leopards. Map from Snow Leopard Trust blog.

The Snow Leopard Trust’s Mongolia project is going full steam ahead and the team is getting heaps of data on the cats they are watching – check out the blog for the movements of Saikhan, Shonkhor, Aztai, Itgel and Tsagaan in the Gobi desert and the Tost and Toson Bumba Mountains of Mongolia. Isn’t technology wonderful? Just to think we can watch where these cats are moving across remote and mountainous region – fantastic. Not only that, but by seeing a cat stay in one place for a few days the researchers know the animal has made a kill and is eating.

Check the SLT blog for regular exciting updates. Learn more detail about all the cats that have been radio collared on the blog About the Cats Page.

Hunting for snow leopard lunch

March 11, 2009

Himalayan tahr. Photo by Som Ale.

Himalayan tahr. Photo by Som Ale.

Som Ale, from Nepal, sent me this spectacular photo of a tahr, one of the main animals that snow leopards hunt. Som had to be sure footed to get this shot, he nearly fell off the mountain taking it.

We can see the beautiful Ama Dablam mountain (quite close to Everest) in the background. Som’s been studying snow leopards and their prey species, the Himalayan tahr for some years now, concentrating on the Sagarmatha (Everest) national park region.

He says, “my ecological quest is to use the prey behavior (tahr’s behavior in this case) to get clues about their predators (here the snow leopard).  So to observe prey behavior one needs to go closer to animals.  In this case I went too close (hopping downhill), on steep terrain full of gravels and rocks, but luckily this animal was not scared of my presence – it was on the cliff, the favourite escape cover, majestically standing above me. I was caught in surprise by other tahrs in the group coming from nowhere below where I was balancing myself with scope in one hand and camera in the other.”

In the field – research in Xinjiang, China

February 28, 2009

Photo by Xinjiang Snow Leopard Project

The Xinjiang Snow Leopard Project (XSLP) is an initiative started by the Beijing Forestry University and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University. You can read about the project on their website –

The team is working closely with the Xinjiang Government and local communities to research what’s happening with snow leopards and their prey in the Taxkurgan Nature Reserve of West Xinjiang.

The last published information about snow leopard numbers in this area is from the 1980s where George Schaller estimated in one of the local communities that there were between 50 and 75 snow leopards. This project is really important to see what has happened to the snow leopards here in the last 20 odd years. They already know from sightings by local herders that there are snow leopards still in the area and the 2009 work will help to establish numbers and impacts on local herder communities.

The team is keeping a blog of the project. Check it out here