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Understanding the elusive snow leopard


    This week, photographs and a story were released about a snow leopard in the remote regions of Kangchenjunga in north-east Nepal.

    Under the gaze of the five sacred peaks – straddling the Nepal, India and Tibet borders – a small team of local conservation volunteers, officials and specialist biologists (including WWF staff) spent weeks preparing, tracking and fitting a satellite-collar to a 5 year old male snow leopard.  Released immediately they have named him Ghanjenzunga – a God associated with the high peaks.

    Exciting and newsworthy as the event was, you – and others – may initially ask ‘Why?’ 

    The fact is that we know so little about so much of what is around us and impacts upon us, and nothing could be truer than our lack of knowledge of snow leopards and the landscapes they live in.

    The livestock herders in Ghunsa Valley know very well that snow leopards – known locally as God’s Pet – occasionally prey on the herder’s young yaks and goats. The Sherpas are also aware of wider problems within the landscapes where they live including the decreasing quality of the alpine pastures, reduced numbers of wild animals – including the snow leopards and their natural wild prey the blue sheep. And they have been anxious to take steps to change this positively.

    Over the past 10 years we have been working with the locals and government agencies to pioneered community management of the region. One such example if the creation of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) is now ceded to the inhabitants of the area.

    A new generation of citizen scientists are being created – capable of collecting important information on wildlife and habitats. Working with government, environment, wildlife and our own experts – the information collected is then used to develop management plans for the entire Conservation Area.

    Just over a year ago the community began to use camera traps (for the first time) to help gain more information about the snow leopards within their area – how they move, their territories, how many there are (the list goes on).

    One of the first great surprises was to find photos of camera trapped common leopards – the bigger, bolder, more aggressive and more adaptable cousin of the snow leopard. These are at least a third heavier than snow leopards and are much more capable of taking larger animals such as adult yaks.  How will the snow leopards themselves be able to deal with the competition from incoming common leopards?

    Perhaps they will be driven further up the mountainside into smaller areas of habitat – making their populations more isolated and fragmented? Or maybe the balance already exists and common leopards have always been there and nobody realised until now?  Certainly common leopards are renowned for their elusiveness.

    And back to satellite-collaring of snow leopards? Every four hours a fix on the snow leopard’s position gives information on the movements of the animal. Put this information together over a period of months and it will allow the herders to better understand the seasonal movements of the animals to help plan grazing patterns for their livestock.

    Undoubtedly – as well – the data from the collared snow leopards will add to our overall understanding of the habitat needs and requirements of these fabulous and elusive wild cats that will be used to ensure their future survival.

    A yakA yak in the Sacred Himalayas landscape Mountain range - snow leopard habitatSnow leopards often live in terrain inhospitable to humans The HimalayasThe rugged mountains of the Himalayas Nepalese landscapeSnow leopard rangelands include community pastures A member of the snow leopard conservation teamA member of the snow leopard conservation team records field data Camera trap image of common leopardA camera trap image of the Melanistic (black) common leopard in Ghunsa Valley

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