The Circle of Life: News from Anu

The saga of Anu continues. This snow leopard mother living in Mongolia's Tost mountains not only keeps surprising us - she also provides a powerful example of nature's perseverance!

Anu is a bit of a snow leopard celebrity. In 2011, she became one of the first female snow leopards to be tracked with a GPS collar. When she became a mother a year later, her cub was the first ever wild snow leopard baby to be filmed in its den. In 2014, after the first cub had grown up and dispersed, Anu gave birth to a litter of three. That summer, one of our camera traps captured incredible images of the family near a watering hole.

Anu's cubs, captured by a research camera in Mongolia in 2014.
Anu’s cubs, captured by a research camera in Mongolia in 2014.

Since then, Anu has added several new chapters to her incredible life story – some of them sad, others joyful!

A Search for Answers

Unless they’re wearing a GPS collar, wild snow leopards are tough to keep track of – and Anu is no exception. After taking the famous family photos at the watering hole in the summer of 2014, she avoided our cameras for almost an entire year.

When we received the 2015 camera trap photos from Mongolia, we immediately started searching for Anu and her offspring. We wanted to see if they had made it through the hard Mongolian winter.

We skipped through the photos, but didn’t spot them. Soon, it became clear that there was no group of three young adults with their mother anywhere on these new pictures.

What had happened to Anu and her cubs? Could they really have successfully avoided the 35 cameras we had set up in their habitat? It’s not impossible, but not very likely either.

To find out, we looked again, more closely, picture for picture, until we finally got our answer – and it was one we had not thought of in any of our scenarios.

It was just a single photo, but it told an incredible story. The time stamp said July 2015. In the center, we saw Anu, her fur pattern clearly visible, identified beyond any doubt… and she was being trailed by three tiny cubs – only one year after she had been photographed at the watering hole with a litter of newborn kittens!

Anu and a new litter of cubs - photographed in July 2015 by a trap camera.
Anu and a new litter of cubs – photographed in July 2015 by a trap camera.

These new cubs couldn’t be older than a few months – but the ones from the previous year would not even have dispersed yet.

It’s not impossible that Anu could have had two overlapping litters, but that would have been a first for snow leopards, and really goes against everything we know.

Another possibility is unfortunately much more likely: it appears as if the 2014 cubs died sometime in the second half of that year, though we have no clue as to why.

With one photo, Anu managed to break our hearts – but at the same time fill us with hope. Nature once again proved to find a way! One litter of cubs dies, and the mother immediately reproduces again. From a human perspective, it may seem tough, but for wildlife, it’s the circle of life!

A Happy Ending?

That said, even scientists can’t look at these cats and their lives entirely without emotions – so when we finally received the 2016 photos from the Tost Mountains a few weeks ago, we looked through them breathlessly! How would Anu’s tale continue?

Just a few days ago, we found out!

A mother and cub... could this be Anu?
A mother and cub… and a familiar-looking fur pattern!

During the summer, two different cameras had captured photos of a group of snow leopards – a mother and her almost fully grown cubs. Full of hope, we looked for Anu’s familiar fur pattern… and finally found her! There she was, a proud mother, followed by three handsome, healthy-looking young cats! They’ve made it! The circle of life continues.

Anu and her grown cubs. Look for the third young cat in the lower right corner of the photo.
Anu and her grown cubs. Look for the third young cat’s eyes in the lower right corner of the photo.

Soon, the young ones will disperse and find their own home ranges. And Anu? There’s a good chance she’ll have another litter of cubs. Time will tell!


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