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Snow leopard : searching for the ghost of the mountain

 

Earlier this year, I was very excited to be invited by WWF Nepal to join the snow leopard collaring expedition into the eastern area of Nepal – Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA).  This was a fantastic and unique opportunity to not only see how the snow leopard collaring is done, but also to spend time in KCA and find out more about what WWF and partners are doing to help conserve the snow leopard in this magical place.

Magical landscape of Yangma © Becci MayMagical landscape of Yangma © Becci May

Getting to Yangma

KCA is in the Himalayas, and Yangma, where the team would be based (our ‘base camp’), is at an altitude of around 4,200m. I have been at that altitude once, in India, and I know it can be tough, especially as it would be 6 days for me to walk there – this is a remote area, and I hoped that my legs, my heart and my mind would be up to it!

We trekked through different forest types, until we were above the tree line.  We experienced sunny hot days, and thundery heavy downpours (which flooded the area where we had set up the tents on the first night!), and finally on my first morning in Yangma I woke up to snowfall. This made the landscape and the mountains look even more stunning. The strong sun that morning soon melted it, and again snow fell overnight.

KCA is an important snow leopard area which has been supported by WWF for a quite a while – WWF-UK’s snow leopard adopters will have heard stories from KCA, as WWF reports on snow leopards from this area.

So, why collar a snow leopard?

Along with snow leopard surveys, a satellite GPS collar, which gives a location every 4 hours, would tell us about the movements and behaviour of snow leopards in this area, to help improve our conservation – for example, the first snow leopard that was collared in Nepal in 2013 traveled into Sikkim in India and back to Nepal, which highlights the importance of transboundary conservation efforts.

The team

The snow leopard collaring team is led by Samundra from WWF Nepal – he has been to Yangma a few times before, working with the ‘citizen scientists’ who are members of the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee (SLCC), and has been involved in the snow leopard collaring expeditions twice before. He is a very capable, curious and calm wildlife biologist – perfect for leading such an expedition.

The core snow leopard collaring team © Becci MayThe core snow leopard collaring team © Becci May

The team involved a very experienced wildlife vet from Chitwan National Park, a very talented wildlife technician from NTNC, two members of the KCA MC, one snow leopard expert and another researcher from WWF Nepal. The team also included porters and yak, who carried the equipment and food needed for a 2 month period, including the collars!

Yak in Yangma © Becci MayYak in Yangma © Becci May

First few days

11 people from the SLCC in Yangma gathered to plan the next few days.

Meeting of the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee © Becci MayMeeting of the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee © Becci May

Based on their local knowledge and information from camera traps which they’d set up a month before, we laid 20 traps in carefully considered locations in the hope that over the next 2 months, one snow leopard would be caught, collared and successfully released.

Samundra checking the camera trap images © Becci MaySamundra checking the camera trap images © Becci May

A pooja, or prayer, was performed the next day, with the incense-like scent of smoking juniper, and fluttering prayer flags, to give us the spiritual blessing to go ahead with the snow leopard work. The snow leopard is thought of as a god here in the mountains.

View from one of the trap locations © Becci MayView from one of the trap locations © Becci May

Snow leopard!

3.30pm on the day after all the traps had been set (our rest day!), the first signal came from one of the traps. Two of the team went to investigate, and once they arrived at the site, we got a very excited message on the walkie talkie that it was a snow leopard. So, the SLCC and others kicked into action – stretcher, hot water bottles, blanket, medicines, dart gun, lights were taken up to the trap site – around 15 very excited people went from Yangma!

The team and stretcher ready to carry the snow leopard © Becci MayThe team and stretcher ready to carry the snow leopard © Becci May

We got to the bottom of the steep mountain side, where we aimed to release the snow leopard, and then I looked up and realised that the snow leopard was higher up. The snow leopard would need to be darted with a tranquiliser and then brought down to the safe release site on a stretcher. One person climbed up with the stretcher, and a few of us followed, including the darter ready to shoot the tranquiliser. It was a tough climb, but thankfully still daylight. The snow leopard was hiding behind a juniper bush, and I watched her from about 100metres away – she was so beautiful – we knew by then that it was a female, which is what we’d hoped for, as the 2 previously collared snow leopards were male.

Once tranquilised, she was carried in the dark by a very skilled team to the release site lower down. Measurements were taken and the collar fitted. Her tail was almost a metre long – longer than her body!

Everything we learn from her through the collar will be new information – we hope to understand her activity patterns and range, and how this relates to that of the male snow leopards which have been collared here. The wake-up drug was given and we made sure that she was back on her feet, before leaving her in peace, and finding our way back to our ‘base camp’, where a small celebration had been prepared – yak meat and rice, and Chinese beer!

We all felt so pleased – and a little bit stunned – it was so unexpected to capture a snow leopard during my relatively short stay Yangma. I have great respect for the collaring team and the SLCC who are doing a fantastic job in monitoring snow leopards and their prey. As Samundra explained “the more we understand the more effective our conservation can become”.

Visit our snow leopard pages to learn more about this wonderfully mysterious species, and take a look at the short video from the collaring expedition.

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