Snow leopards can’t go to the vet to get a health check, so we’re taking the vet to them, checking the cats (and their prey) for diseases!
Infectious diseases including plague, anthrax or rabies are known to occur in parts of snow leopard habitat – and they could be a threat to the cats or other wild inhabitants of their ecosystems, as well as to local communities and their livestock. With help from experts at the Swedish Veterinary Institute, we’re working on identifying the most common diseases in the cats’ ecosystem in order to stop them from spreading.
In 2011, over the course of fieldwork, our team found 4 dead snow leopards in our study area in Mongolia’s South Gobi. None of the dead cats showed any signs of injury – to the naked eye, they appeared to have passed naturally. Still, such high mortality was puzzling.
Could these cats have died from a disease?
Tuberculosis, parvovirus and canine distemper have been identified as the culprit in several deaths of captive snow leopards. The canine distemper virus was also found to be responsible for almost 1000 African lions in the Serengeti in 1994 – nearly a third of the region’s population. Plague, anthrax and rabies are other diseases known to occur in parts of Mongolia’s snow leopard habitat – some could potentially be fatal for the cats.
Unfortunately, we may never know whether one of these diseases killed the four snow leopards in our study area.
Securing tissue samples for testing in the harsh conditions of the South Gobi is extremely difficult, and some of the diseases known to occur there are dangerous for humans as well – examples include the above-mentioned plague, anthrax and rabies. A necropsy of the snow leopard carcasses would have required safety equipment that our teams didn’t have at their disposal in the remote Gobi.
The four dead cats have remained on our minds though, and we’re determined to find out how much of a threat diseases are to snow leopards and their ecosystem – as well as to livestock and ultimately local communities.
To this end, we’ve assembled an international team of wildlife disease researchers, led by Dr. Jonas Malmsten of the Swedish Veterinary Institute, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Veterinary Advisor. The team, including Ph.D. student Carol Esson, is initiating a number of disease studies, collecting and analyzing samples from wildlife as well as domestic livestock and herder dogs in South Gobi.
Ultimately, the results of these studies should combine to form a comprehensive picture of the diseases prevalent in the area.
Herds and Herders at Risk?
Snow leopards aren’t the only animals that may carry diseases, and our researchers aren’t the only people potentially at risk.
“Local herders could be exposed to dangerous bacteria or viruses when handling infected livestock”, explains Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation Director.
“Beyond this immediate safety concern, livestock health is paramount to the economic stability of herder communities in snow leopard habitats of Asia. Losing livestock to disease can be a major blow to a family”, Charu says.
Preventing diseases from killing livestock obviously helps communities – but it also benefits snow leopards and their natural prey. “Diseases spread between species in an ecosystem. They’ll go from a domestic goat to a wild ibex, from a herder dog to the snow leopard”, Charu explains. “In addition, the fewer livestock they lose to disease, the more tolerant herders will become toward predators such as the snow leopard”, he adds.
In Pakistan, where we’ve been partnering with local communities to vaccinate livestock for several years, results have been very encouraging: a review has shown these vaccination programs to lower livestock mortality rates by as much as fifty percent.
The Mongolian authorities, meanwhile, have assisted herders with vaccinating livestock when needed as a reaction to particularly severe outbreaks of diseases in recent years. Our work will help identify the sources of potential outbreaks more easily and quickly.
“The long-term goal is to establish a disease monitoring and surveillance system, where we can keep an eye out and prevent major disease outbreaks. That will help snow leopards, local communities, and their livestock”, Charu explains.
This work is made possible by the support of generous partners including the Swedish Veterinary Institute, Helsinki Zoo and the Whitley Fund for Nature. Thank you very much!