All six scientists took time out of their busy days to answer these clever questions from students. (all hold PhDs with specialties in wildlife ecology, biology and conservation science.)
How did you become an expert in snow leopards?
Orjan: I have lived and worked in the mountains where snow leopards are for almost four full years. In my work I track the snow leopards, look for markings from them and try to understand how they see the mountains and what is important for them. I also capture snow leopards and put collars on them that send information to me so I can see where they are. This information teaches me a lot about how they move through their mountains and what they do.
Nadia: When I was teenager, I used to live in one of the villages in snow leopard habitat where some snow leopard scientists came to do research. They inspired me a lot and I wanted to be one of them.
Kullu: I became an expert on snow leopards by studying them for many years in their natural habitat in the Himalaya.
Ranjini: I don’t think of myself as an expert, just someone who is curious and wants to learn more about snow leopards :). I was very lucky to be offered opportunities that allowed me to work and learn in this landscape. I studied ecology and conservation for my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD after which I continued to work in this landscape and on snow leopards.
Gustaf: I have studied arctic foxes and lynx before and then was fortunate to get a job with snow leopards and have learned a lot about them through that job (which is a great job)
Koustubh: Even though I have been working on snow leopards since 2007, I am far from becoming an expert. They are so mysterious, we are still learning new things about them.
Do you work with real snow leopards?
Koustubh: We do work with real snow leopards but seldom get to come in physical contact with them other than when they are collared with GPS-satellite collars
Kullu: Yes, as real as they get. But if you ask an expert in philosophy, they will ask you “What is reality?”
What is your favorite thing about snow leopards?
Orjan: My favorite thing with the snow leopards is their tail. Sometimes when we have sedated a snow leopard and finished all the work and are waiting for it to wake up again I find myself playing a little with the tail. Their tails are very, very long and quite thick and heavy. The tip of the tail is very mobile and very, very fluffy and soft.
Ranjini: My favorite thing about snow leopards is how they hunt on steep cliffs. They’re like ninja’s as they effortlessly chase their prey up or down almost completely vertical cliff faces. Their long tails help them maintain their balance as they pursue their prey.
Has there been a time you got scared of a snow leopard?
Orjan: Yes, on a few occasions I have been scared. I think I was most scared when a snow leopard male was recovering from sedation. He had not yet gained his balance completely and started to go towards a vertical cliff wall. Snow leopards feel safe when they have climbed such walls because humans and other animals can’t reach them then. He didn’t realize that he still had poor balance and would have fallen if he had tried to climb the wall. To keep him safe I tried to guide him in another direction. Despite many attempts he insisted on going towards the wall so in the end I grabbed a hold of his hindlegs and started pushing him away from the wall. He didn’t like that much and spun around looking into my eyes. We were maybe three feet apart and the look in his face said “no pushing, ok?”*
After what felt like a very long time he turned around and walked away in the direction that I wanted, away from the wall.
Kullu: Yes, once I saw three of them in the night. Their eyes reflected the light from my flashlight and I was really scared.
Koustubh: The time when I had my closest encounter with a snow leopard, he was just 1 meter away from me and as surprised as I was. I think more than being scared, I was thrilled and excited. Later when I sat and thought about it, I did feel a bit scared that what if it got worried and swiped at me, I would have gone down the ledge… but then snow leopards are gentle animals and very rarely attack humans.
Why do you care about snow leopards?
Orjan: I care about all living things and think that every species is fascinating if you just look close enough. It is easy to be fascinated by snow leopards because they are beautiful and very powerful. They could easily hurt or kill a human but never attack people and just want to be left alone in their mountains.
Nadia: Snow leopards control herbivore numbers (animals that eat plants) which play crucial roles for pasture management in snow leopard landscapes.
Koustubh: Because I feel they are the guardians of the mountains that provide water to so many humans living downstream.
Do snow leopards remember people like elephants do?
Orjan: I do not know if they remember as well as elephants do but I know that they remember people. In zoos they have favorite keepers that they often greet with huffing sounds (same as they use to greet other snow leopards).
Kullu: Yes, snow leopards in the zoo remember their keepers very well. And they also remember their vets very well too.
What do you think is a snow leopard’s favorite food?
Orjan: I think their favorite food is ibex ( a kind of wild goat) when it is wearing its summer coat. In summer, the ibex have much thinner coats so the snow leopards do not get as much hair in their food.
Kullu: Blue sheep lamb chops
Gustaf: They have a pretty boring diet that consists of meat, meat, meat, and then some more meat (this being mostly meat from wild goats and sheep)
Nadia: In Mongolia, the snow leopard’s main prey is the ibex. But interestingly, snow leopards also prey on some small mammals such as marmot and pikas. I could imagine, those prey animals can be like the snack-candy-chocolate we eat once in a while -:)
Do snow leopards like water like tigers do?
Kullu: I don’t think they particularly like water but they do cross streams and get fully wet.
Koustubh: We know they prefer to drink water than eat snow even when there is snow everywhere. Moreover we have also photographed them drenched and wet after crossing rivers, but they live in areas that are perhaps too cold for snow leopards to take a dip like tigers do.
Do you think snow leopards like snow?
Nadia: Since I work in the Gobi desert in Mongolia, there is hardly any snow (some winters have more snow, some winters hardly any snow). I do know, snow leopards seek soft gravel to walk on like sand, in other words in some areas “snow” can be the soft gravel for snow leopard paws to easily walk on the harsh terrain.
Ranjini: I think snow is very important for snow leopards as they are built for the cold. I think that they like snow, but even if it’s not there, I think they like it to be cold. But they actually camouflage better when there is no snow, as their coat blends in with the mountains.
What are some things humans can do to help snow leopards survive?
Kullu: Governments should make sure that the farmers are compensated when they lose their animals to snow leopards. People should try not to get mad at the snow leopards when they eat their sheep or goats.
Ranjini: I think humans can do many things to help snow leopards survive. People who are living outside snow leopard landscapes can find out more about snow leopards and how they live. They can help support people who live with snow leopards and conservation organizations working to protect snow leopards.
Gustaf: Talking to other people about the importance of conservation and taking care of the world.
Koustubh: Ask your parents not to buy products made from snow leopards or other wildlife that is snow leopard prey; consider buying products such as those from Snow Leopard Enterprises that help support local communities which live with snow leopards; talk about snow leopards to your friends, family and teachers so people learn about them. Ask your parents not to invest in any plans of mines, dams or infrastructure development that will destroy their habitat.
Is there anything else about snow leopards you think we should know?
Orjan: Snow leopards are actually quite social, even if people do not think so. Even adult males sometimes play with cubs when they meet a female with cubs.
Nadia: Snow leopards are not the enemy of humans, they are here to live and balance the mountain ecosystem.
Kullu: There is so much to know that you can become a snow leopard scientist yourself and spend your life learning more about these magnificent cats.
Gustaf: They are called the ghost of the mountain as people see them very rarely and they blend in very well with the environment.
Koustubh: If you subscribe to the Snow Leopard Trust newsletter, you will learn new things about snow leopards every month.
Ranjini: Write in and tell us what is your favorite thing about snow leopards! 🙂
*Note: It’s never safe to approach wild animals without proper training.