Searching for Snow Leopards in February 2010

October 26, 2009
Jigmet Dadul, best snow leopard tracker in Ladakh. Photo kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Jigmet Dadul, best snow leopard tracker in Ladakh. Photo kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

In 1997 I trekked in Hemis National Park, in Ladakh, in the northern Indian Himalayas. Along with 8 other volunteers and two snow leopard researchers (Dr Joe Fox and Dr Som Ale) we searched for scrapes, scat and any markings that told us that snow leopards still survived here in these awesome mountains after decades of being hunted for fur and body parts. We found a few signs but never saw the elusive cat. Not surprising as until recently even researchers working for decades in the wild seldom spotted these cats.
At that time the local villagers felt snow leopards were the enemy – the cats often killed domestic livestock if they weren’t able to get wild prey. Trekkers passing through these mountains had no idea that an animal called the snow leopard even existed let alone that this was one of its native habitats. There was huge uncertainty about their future. Could the beautiful snow leopard ever gain a claw hold for survival in these spectacular mountains?

But next February, in 2010 I’ll be there again…this time 12 years older, a bit rounder in the middle and in the dead of winter…yikes…

Cafe stop high on the trek. Parachute Cafe. Photo by kind permission of KarmaQuest.

Cafe stop high on the trek. Parachute Cafe. Photo by kind permission of KarmaQuest.

12 years later so much has changed. Thanks to the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) and other conservation groups the villagers today supplement their agricultural-based livelihoods by helping keep the snow leopard alive. They have home stay businesses where trekkers use traditional accommodation, eat local food and learn about the Ladakh way of life. Village women also have businesses tending parachute cafes for thirsty trekkers on high mountain trails. *

KarmaQuest Ecotourism and Adventure Travel, a US-based company has been running winter snow leopard tracking trips with one of the world’s most renowned snow leopard researchers, Dr Rodney Jackson, Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy to this part of the world since 2005. And why go in winter? Well winter is the time snow leopards come down to lower altitude and offers the best chance of seeing these rare and endangered cats in the wild.

The other trip members and I will join the SLC-India staff on their winter monitoring activities, studying the snow leopard when it descends from the snowy mountaintops in search of food, studying prey species and the snow leopard’s habitat.

Solar cooking technology. Indian Himalayas. Photo by kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Solar cooking technology. Indian Himalayas. Photo by kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

No doubt we’ll all be thinking about the 2007 winter group that was lucky enough to observe a snow leopard eating its kill for more than an hour. Thus far KarmaQuest group members have seen a snow leopard every year! Considering that less than 100 Westerners had seen a snow leopard in the wild before 2005, this is a phenomenal rate of success!  And all thanks to the years of study, tracking and conservation efforts by Dr. Jackson and his Ladakhi team, of which Jigmet Dadul – reputed to be the ‘best snow leopard tracker in Ladakh’– will be there to help us beat the odds.

There are still trip places available for this fantastic opportunity. Check out the website from the folks over at KarmaQuest  and talk to Wendy Lama, an Ecotourism Specialist who has been travelling and working in this part of the world for many years. This is the trek of a lifetime, it would be wonderful if I saw you there too. The deadline for signing up is November 30, 2009.
*Parachute cafes – my other half wondered “are they cafes where adventure parachutists drop in to for a tea or latte?” No….they portable cafés made out of – you guessed it – parachute material.

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George Schaller working magic for snow leopards again

October 8, 2009
George Schaller with snow leopard cub. Photo by WCS.

George Schaller with snow leopard cub. Photo by WCS.

I’ve mentioned George Schaller many times on this blog – Ok, he’s my hero. He’s probably done more for snow leopard conservation than anyone else on the planet. George won the Indianapolis Prize in 2008 and during 2009 used the money  for snow leopard activities in China. Currently Vice President of Panthera and Senior Conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, George visited China’s Qinghai Province in May 2009 to  help initiate snow leopard programs supported by Panthera, an organization whose mission is to conserve the world’s 36 species of wild cats.

The Indianapolis Prize has just reported on George’s work there. Most of his work was conducted in the Sanjiangyuan Reserve (“Source of Three Rivers Reserve”—Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong ), which covers nearly 58,000 square miles, primarily at elevations above 11,800 feet.  In addition to assessing snow leopard presence and threats, the trip provided Peking University Ph.D. student Li Juan with the training she needs to start a snow leopard study this year. George and Juan traveled more than 2,600 miles to evaluate potential study areas for the student’s research project, and George will continue to mentor Juan as she pursues her Ph.D.

While in Asia, George met with representatives from the Snow Leopard Trust and Shan Shui, one of the leading conservation organizations in China , to create a new collaborative snow leopard research and conservation program. These organizations signed a long-term agreement that will bring much needed expertise and funding to efforts to save snow leopards in China , where as much as 50 percent of the remaining wild population exists.

“George Schaller’s extensive research, fieldwork and training have been essential to saving snow leopards in regions of China ,” said Tom McCarthy , Director of Snow Leopard Programs for Panthera. “I can’t think of a better use of the Indianapolis Prize funds than teaching future generations the urgency and necessity of wildlife conservation.”

“The important aspects of this project for me,” added Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, “are its collaborative and long-term nature.  It’s George’s innate ability to bring people together and to forge alliances that overcome the short-term problems of political or geographic conflicts in order to serve the greater good that makes him a hero for me, and for the world.  It seems he has again worked his magic for the snow leopards.”


Illegal hunting and killing of snow leopards

July 7, 2009
Traffic International "Fading Footprints" 2003

Traffic International "Fading Footprints" 2003

I’m reading one of the most comprehensive and powerful reports on the trade of wild snow leopards called “Fading Footprints – the killing and trade of snow leopards.”

It’s a huge piece of research, published in 2003 by TRAFFIC it makes quite depressing reading. At the time the research was conducted, despite legislation protecting snow leopards in most of their range countries, they are still being hunted and killed for furs and body parts for traditional medicines. When furs can be sold for $US300-$US800 its easy to see the incentive. Retribution killing by farmers protecting livestock is also still common especially in areas where they’ve had not education about how to protect their livestock.

Recognising that all the range countries have different challenges the report outlines many recommendations for how things could be improved, like strengthening enforcement of the laws. This makes sense. Having laws isn’t enough if they can’t be enforced then snow leopards hunting will continue. The antipoaching team, the Gruppa Bars in Kyrgyztan (see my recent blog post) is one example of this.

 Other recommendations include helping the local communities that share snow leopard habitat which is one of the most important things that both the Snow Leopard Trust and the Snow Leopard Conservancy are doing. Its been found that when local communities understand how rare and endangered the snow leopards are they are willing to work to protect it if they aren’t financially disadvantaged.

The report is almost 6 years old. Much has been done by many dedicated agencies and people throughout the range countries. But there’s no doubt that the cats are still under huge threats.


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.


Saving sheep from snow leopards, saves the snow leopards

May 24, 2009
Snow leopard proof corral. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

Snow leopard proof corral. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

When snow leopards kill domestic livestock in the villages of the Himalayas they are usually then hunted and killed by the owners in retaliation. It’s easy to understand why villagers would do this. Often these sheep and goats are the only livelihood they have, representing meat and money without which they and their families would starve.

Snow leopard proof corral in Pakistan. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservancy

Snow leopard proof corral in Pakistan. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservancy

About 10 years ago many of the conservation agencies working with villagers realised that there was a simple solution to this problem – building better snow leopard proof corrals. Although the idea is simple, the tools and material like cyclone wire are relatively expensive and so donated by the agencies working with village people. With co-operative planning the Snow Leopard Conservancy for example, investigated the existing predator proof strategies of villagers in India and Pakistan.

They’ve come up with solutions that meet local needs and completed over 30 corrals (livestock pens) throughout northern India since the program began, serving over 200 households and over 3,000 head of livestock. Now that the xorrals have proper doors, windows and roofs made of wire mesh the snow leopards are no longer able to get into them. This story shows us another example of the potential for snow leopards and people to live side by side in a shared habitat.


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.”


Getting photos of those wild snow leopards

March 4, 2009

Camera trap. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

Camera trap. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

Thanks to camera trapping techniques we’re getting more and more photos of snow leopards in the wild. Camera trapping is pretty expensive and time consuming. Expensive not because of the gear which is often a pretty standard camera but because of the effort it takes to make it happen. Firstly you’ve got to get a team into areas that are always remote cos that’s just were our dear furry friends hang out. Then you have to live there for a period of time because they don’t always come out on the first invitation. Sometimes like Steve Winter (see his award winning pic) it takes at least a few months of patience in harsh weather and altitude conditions. The current project the Snow Leopard Trust is running in Mongolia has researchers staying many months over a period of years!

 

The technique is used in a small area where you know there are at least a few snow leopards passing through because you’ve seen scats (droppings) or scrapings. The camera is set up on paths and trails and the picture is taken when the camera is triggered by the passing animal. The trigger goes off as the sensor senses body heat. Things can go wrong of course, like the batteries running out, the animal being too quick to be well photographed, the camera getting damaged etc. But as we can see from the many photos now being released the technology is really helping researchers learn more about snow leopard numbers and habitat.

 

If there are a couple of snow leopards in one area and the camera catches them then because each animal has unique markings in its rosettes you can distinguish between different individuals, although it’s usually hard to tell if they’re male or female.