Press Release, Seattle, 09/07/17
An international research team have found and recorded a pair of rare, endangered snow leopard cubs in a sheltered den site in Tost Nature Reserve, Mongolia. The team had tracked the cubs’ mother with a GPS collar for several months as part of an ongoing long-term snow leopard study.
Eventually, they determined that she must have given birth, and entered the den to examine the cubs after the mother had left, presumably to go on a hunt.
“We found two healthy cubs, one male and one female, both weighing just under 2 kilos”, says Gustaf Samelius, the Snow Leopard Trust scientist who led the research team along with Per Ahlqvist, a special advisor to this project.
It’s a rare occurrence indeed: there may be fewer than 4,000 snow leopards left in the wild, and this was only the fourth time researchers have ever been able to observe wild cubs in their den.
The discovery will help us find out more about how often these cats have cubs, how large litters are, and how many cubs survive to adulthood – key information for their protection.
“Despite snow leopard research dating back to early 1980s, we still don’t have any information on basic demographic parameters such as birth rates and survival”, Samelius says. “Without this information, we can’t really say with any confidence how many snow leopards there really are, and how they are doing. Gathering such information is therefore very important for our understanding of the species and for developing conservation plans.”
With his colleagues, Samelius will be observing these two cubs as they grow up and eventually disperse from their mother around the age of 2. “We’ve tagged the cubs with small chips that will allow us to identify them later on if we capture them as adults. We’ll also set up a dense network of camera traps in order to get as complete a picture as possible of their youth, up to the age when they’ll leave their mother.”
Studying snow leopards: Challenges and breakthroughs
The den visit was part of the ongoing long-term ecological study on snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi province that’s been conducted by the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences since 2008.
During this study, we’ve been constantly monitoring the snow leopard population of Tost with camera traps, and have tracked a total of 23 individual snow leopards with GPS collars. Currently, we are tracking three cats, two males (M12 and M13) and one female (F10, the mother of the two cubs now found in their den).
This long-term research has given us a fairly good understanding of the behavior of individual snow leopards, such as what they eat, how often they kill, if they are territorial, and how much space they use. However, questions related to the ecology of the population (demography) are still poorly understood.
Details on birth and mortality rates, cub survival, or dispersal are largely unavailable. Camera traps only show an incomplete picture here: they don’t allow a definitive determination of litter sizes and thus survival rates of cubs. Nor do they give information about the age of first reproduction or the reproduction frequency in wild snow leopards. This is crucial information for estimating how many snow leopards there really are in the wild – and den visits are the only way to obtain it.
To the left is a map that illustrates how our team was able to locate a wild snow leopard den on a previous den visit in 2012. We do not provide the movement patterns of F10 at this time to avoid revealing the location of her den.
This work is a result of the ongoing long-term ecological study on snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi province that’s been conducted by the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences since 2008. The conservation organization Panthera helped launch the study and was a partner until 2012.
We are thankful to the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences for partnering with us in this research endeavor.
Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by the Whitley Fund for Nature, has helped tremendously with this work.
We are equally thankful to Cat Life Foundation, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Disney Conservation Fund, Edrington Group, Kolmarden Zoo, Nordens Ark, Nysether Family Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust UK, Turner Foundation, Twycross Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, and all other donors and supporters.
Special thanks go to Elizabeth Alaniz and Carol Wolfson for funding this den visit, and to all staff, and in particular the SLCF team in Mongolia; board, volunteers, zoos and donors who supported the work.