July 14th, 2012 by James Ayre
Two female snow leopards and their cubs have been located and filmed for the first time in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains. This is the first known video taken of a mother with cubs in the wild.
The work was done by researchers from the organization Panthera, which focuses on wild cat conservation, and the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT).
Snow leopards have a very secretive and elusive nature, in the local languages their name means “ghost”. Combined with the difficult nature of the environment, this makes it a very difficult to track animal. The dens of snow leopards are notoriously difficult to locate. The discovery of a den is a big one in the field and will provide great insight into the lives of snow leopards.
Dr. Tom McCarthy, Executive Director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program, stated, “We have spent years trying to determine when and where snow leopards give birth, the size of their litters, and the chances a cub has of surviving into adulthood. This is one of those exceptional moments in conservation where after years of effort, we get a rare glimpse into the life of an animal that needs our help in surviving in today’s world. These data will help ensure a future for these incredible animals.”
The videos of the female and her cub in their den are posted below. The videos were recorded from a distance by Örjan Johansson, Panthera’s Snow Leopard Field Scientist and a Ph.D. student, via a camera fixed to an extended pole.
The research team, which included a veterinarian, entered the two dens (the first with two cubs, and the second containing one cub) while the mothers were away hunting. The three cubs were weighed, measured, photographed, and had other details about them recorded. Tiny microchip ID tags the size of a grain of rice were fixed on two of the cubs, under their skin for future identification.
“The utmost care was taken in handling the animals to ensure they were not endangered, which was the top priority of the team at all times. In the following days, the team monitored the mothers’ locations to ensure that they returned to their dens and their cubs, which they successfully did.”
“Knowledge about the first days and weeks of life is vital to our understanding of how big cat populations work, and how likely it is for a newborn to reach adulthood and contribute to a healthy population. A valid conservation program requires such information, which this new development in snow leopard research provides,” said Dr. Howard Quigley, Panthera’s Executive Director of both Jaguar and Cougar Programs.
“Referred to by locals as ‘Asia’s Mountain Ghost,’ knowledge of snow leopards in general is quite limited due to the cat’s elusive nature, and even less is known about rearing cubs and cub survival in the wild. Until now, what is known has mostly been learned from studying snow leopards in zoos. Although snow leopard litters typically consist of one to three cubs in a captive zoo environment, no information exists regarding litter size in the wild. As wild snow leopard cubs are subject to natural predators, disease, and also human threats such as poaching or capture for the illegal wildlife market, the percentage of cubs which survive to adulthood has until now only been speculated.”
“The use of PIT tags and observations of snow leopard rearing in the wild will allow our scientists to learn about the characteristics of a typical natal den and speculate how a den is selected, how long snow leopard cubs remain in dens, when cubs begin to follow their mothers outside of the dens, how often and how long the mother leaves the cubs alone to hunt, how many cubs are typically born in the wild, and other valuable data.”
The data and gathered through the camera-trapping and GPS collaring will “help to inform effective conservation initiatives undertaken by Panthera across the snow leopard’s range.”
Snow leopards have declined by as much as 20 percent over the past 16 years and are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Image Credits: Panthera/Snow Leopard Trust
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