We had previously opted out of this research method, due to the risks and limits of technology. However, by 2008, the technology had improved so much, and the gaps in our knowledge about snow leopards were significant enough that we felt it was a risk not to consider tracking snow leopards. We needed to take this leap in order to protect the species.
So, I found myself walking in a valley with Orjan, setting foot snares. I wasn’t a fan of this method, but I knew we just didn’t have the data needed to inform effective snow leopard conservation strategies. Fortunately, the time with Orjan gave me confidence that every precaution was being taken to protect each individual cat.
One memory that stands out to this day is of Orjan setting our first trap. He spends a great deal of time walking around the possible site, looking at it ‘like a snow leopard would,’ even putting his hands in the spaces where he thinks a snow leopard will walk. Then he digs, sets the sponge, sets the equipment, and does what I call ‘decorating’ to ensure the cat won’t see the snare. It’s a remarkable combination of science, intuition and artistry. After about two hours, the trap was complete. But Orjan was looking at it with a mix of scientific scrutiny and like a “worried father.” After looking at it from different angles, he decided to move it. He dug up two hours’ worth of work and shifted it by three or four inches! With five more snares ahead of him and more than ten hours of work, he had decided to start over to ensure the cat’s safety. I knew we had made the right hire and that these cats would face the least possible risk for a study of this kind.
Since 2008, Ojan has gone on to collar more snow leopards than anyone else in the world, becoming a leading expert on tracking snow leopards in the wild. His groundbreaking work has helped fill in crucial knowledge gaps about snow leopard behavior, diet, habitat requirements, cub survival, dispersal and denning behavior. This data provides valuable information to help prioritize areas for conservation. In fact, it recently played a critical role in the designation of a new National Reserve in the Gobi, where a viable population of snow leopards shares the land with nomadic herders.
None of this would have been possible without using tracking devices like the satellite collars we have fitted on 32 snow leopards over the past 13 years. But our decision at Snow Leopard Trust to use telemetry devices is not made lightly, as it is vital that capture procedures are planned and executed in the most efficient and ethical way. Orjan and his colleagues recently published a paper that articulates guidelines for planning, designing and implementing telemetry studies with a particular emphasis on snow leopards. The publication, Guidelines for Telemetry Studies on Snow Leopards, describes the necessary steps to ensure that captures are conducted safely and with the least amount of stress to animals.
To safeguard animal welfare, it’s vital that transmitters affect individuals minimally and that capture protocols meet high animal welfare standards. A telemetry study can fail or produce biased results if the transmitters affect the behavior, reproduction, or survival of collared individuals. This paper lays out the recommended steps Orjan has applied, from the initial and critical step of formulating a clear research plan to initiating a pilot study to evaluate the protocols and overall design. Although this paper focuses on snow leopards, it can apply to any study using collaring and the framework will help researchers decide if and when telemetry data are necessary for addressing the key study questions.
Telemetry studies that are undertaken with clearly-articulated purpose, well-vetted and comprehensive protocols, and a sustained commitment of resources can prove essential for filling knowledge gaps, especially for snow leopards and other low-density, rare species, and can ultimately play a vital role in conservation.