The Snow Leopard Programme: the first stage of field studies has been completed

The Snow Leopard Programme: the first stage of field studies has been completed

1 September 2010

Comprehensive field studies of snow leopards continue at the Ubsunur Hollow Biosphere Reserve in the southwest of Tuva. The first stage of the research lasted from June 23 – August 9, 2010.


Last summer, researchers from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences explored a pristine wilderness area of 200 sq km in the Tsagan-Shibetu Mountains and the valleys of the Khemchigeilik-Khen and the Eldig-Khem, tributaries of the Barlyk River. Their goal was initially to capture and tag local leopards in order to learn more about the species in the area.


Snow leopards, also known as ounces, are an endangered species. The 120 to 150 survivors are now too clever to come out of hiding in remote locales, and none of the remaining leopards have been caught to this day. Those in the Ubsunur area ignored 32 valerian-baited traps – a miracle of feline self-control. The expedition was more of a success photographically – ultimately, 4 of 48 hidden cameras were able to capture shots of the leopards.


Always on their guard, snow leopards notice the slightest changes in their environment. Once one spots a camera in its path, the huge cat stalks up, inspects the gadget, and rubs its face against it, leaving little chance for a clear close-up. Zoologists are now collecting all the shots in a database in order to distinguish individual animals by the spots on their bodies, faces, and hindquarters.


The expedition also collected samples of fur, claw scratches, feces, and urine for genetic tests, hormone and dietary studies, and research on parasites and viruses affecting the species.


Established methods for tracking animals, using trails, droppings, and so forth allowed scientists to estimate the population of the Siberian ibex, the snow leopards' main prey. The expedition observed that the ibex were extremely scanty last summer – presumably as a result of rampant poaching. Surviving goats fled to Mongolia, and the leopards seem to have followed their trail.