Scientists Collar Three More Wild Snow Leopards in Mongolia

For DSWF, which has been funding this unprecedented long-term study into snow leopards in Mongolia for many years, the news that three more of these secretive cats have been collared is hugely exciting.

“It is incredible that in a short one-month time span, the team was able to collar three cats and that data from the cats, which vary in sex and age, will expand the data set and yield greater insights about snow leopard habitat use and needs,” says DSWF CEO, Oliver Smith.

Remarkable too is that this year two of the collars have been programmed to send data hourly allowing the team for the first time to understand what a typical ‘day in the life of a snow leopard’ may look like.

Collared in the Tost Nature Reserve in Mongolia’s South Gobi province this April the cats, two male and one female, became the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd snow leopards to be tracked with a GPS collar in this long-term study.

One male is about four years old, while the other appears younger and seems to have dispersed from his mother relatively recently. Young snow leopards separate from their mothers at around one and a half years. The female cat is thought to be about five years old. The scientists believe she has had at least one litter of cubs before.

“The collars are programmed to drop off in about 24 months. During this time, their positions will be relayed to a satellite every few hours, from where they’ll be downloaded securely to designated computers. This allows us to track and map how they use their habitat and perhaps interact,” says Örjan Johansson, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Swedish biologist who led the recent expedition supported by Dr. Gustaf Samelius, SLT’s Assistant Director for Science. Having safely captured and collared wild snow leopards on exactly 50 occasions, Johansson is the world’s most accomplished snow leopard trapper.

The collars provide unprecedented data about the location and activity of the cats, which are regularly monitored by the scientists using a combination of GPS data monitoring and on-the-ground surveys to investigate how frequently they kill prey, and what type.

The scientists will compare photos they took of the three newly collared snow leopards to the existing database of research camera photos to try and identify them. “We hope that we may have photos of the younger male from last year, when he must have still been with his mother. This would allow us to understand if he has already moved to a different part of the range since separating from her,” says Örjan Johansson.

“With two of these new cats, we’ve programmed their collars differently. During two intense periods this autumn and next spring, they will send a location hourly. This will allow us for the first time to understand what a typical day in the life of a snow leopard may look like. It will give us much more detailed insights about the activity and movement patterns of the cats than ever. The data from these collars will also help us improve our sampling designs for estimating snow leopard populations using camera trapping or genetic sampling.”

Understanding how snow leopards use their habitat

When compared to data from other collared snow leopards, the movement patterns of these three cats will help the researchers paint a more complete picture of the famously elusive snow leopard’s ecology and behaviour.

“Thanks to our previous collared cats, we have gained a relatively solid understanding of how snow leopards move around in the landscape, and how they use space over the long run”, Johansson says.

“We also found that nearly 40% of all protected areas in the snow leopard’s habitat are smaller than that,” Örjan Johansson says. “It’s pretty clear: protected areas alone can’t keep the snow leopard safe. We need to also partner with local communities and foster coexistence, through programs such as livestock insurance, or building better corrals.”

The study is being conducted by the Snow Leopard Trust and its Mongolian partner, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, in collaboration with the Mongolian Academy of Science and the Swedish University of Agriculture Sciences.

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Orjan Johansson has equipped snow leopards with GPS collars on 50 occasions- more than any other researcher in the world. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust