Tag Archives: Snow leopard

New threat looms for snow leopards: infection

As if snow leopards weren’t pressured enough, researchers have uncovered a new threat which might severely affect populations: infection.

The pathogens identified in this study did not appear to cause illness in the snow leopards in the short term, but have caused illness in other wild felids, researchers say.

Snow leopards are solitary predators which inhabit alpine and subalpine zones at elevations of over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) in the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. It’s estimated that less than 10,000 individuals survive in the wild and, even for these survivors, life isn’t easy.

The threats snow leopards face are numerous, although they generally focus around conflict with humans. Global change and habitat destruction are restricting their range, while poaching and conflicts with herders are putting even more pressure on snow leopard population. The snow leopard is considered highly vulnerable, and any additional threat could be decisive.

In 2011, researchers were alarmed when they found four snow leopard corpses in the South Gobi province of Mongolia, with what seemed to be an unexplained cause of death. They wanted to see if an infection was to blame, but solving this riddle wasn’t easy.

The problem is that finding and studying snow leopards is extremely difficult. Not only do they live in some of the world’s most inaccessible areas, but they’re also masters of camouflage and generally avoid human contact with impressive agility. Even so, biologists at the Snow Leopard Trust and Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation were able to capture 20 snow leopards, carrying out a range of blood tests to assess their health.

All but one were in excellent shape, but several zoonotic pathogens were discovered in their blood, including Coxiella burnetii, which can also spread to livestock and even humans, causing Q fever — an uncommon but life-threatening condition. Two other notable pathogens were Leptospira species, which are readily transmissible to humans and can also lead to potentially life-threatening infections, and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite capable of infecting all warm-blooded animals and causes toxoplasmosis. In other words, not only are these infections threatening snow leopards, but they could also potentially spread to livestock and population. Researchers also noted that snow leopards had quite a few ticks, which also carried diseases that can spread for animals to people.

It’s unclear how widespread the infection risk is, but if it reaches an epidemic level, the effects could be disastrous, says lead author Carol Esson, of James Cook University in Australia.

“A disease epidemic could be devastating to wild snow leopards due to their low numbers and many other threats to their existence. Although the zoonotic pathogens identified in this study did not appear to cause illness to the snow leopards in the short term, they have caused illness in other wild cats. And so, there is now a need to establish surveillance to monitor for potential longer-term disease impacts on this vulnerable population,” Esson explains.

This new knowledge can help researchers establish a baseline for the health of these felines, tracking any potential changes as they occur. Having access to this type of information is important for conservationists, particularly when it comes to such an elusive creature. But this can do more than just help snow leopards, researchers say.

Raising awareness in local nomadic communities is also important, especially since the infections were also found in the local herds. Herders can take measures to boost animal health, which will reduce the overall risk of infection and potentially increase the income of these communities.

“Raising awareness in local communities about the possibility of illness in their animals and themselves could lead to improvements to herd health, boosting their productivity and income,” says Esson.

Snow leopards’ typically feed on wild herbivores such as blue sheep or ibex. However, in some areas, they have started preying on livestock, bringing them into conflict with herders.

The study was published in the journal Infection Ecology and Epidemiology.

Hundreds of snow leopards are being killed every year, and that’s unacceptable

The snow leopards is buckling under pressure from human killings, with hundreds of the cats falling prey to farmers and poachers in the remote mountains of central Asia each year.

There might be less than 4,000 of them still alive in the wild.
Image credits Marcel Langthim / Pixabay.

Fluffy, adorable, and exceedingly deadly, there are an estimated 4,000 snow leopards still living in the world. While getting an accurate head count of the elusive, solitary felines is pretty difficult, we’re pretty confident that the species has lost a fifth of its members in the last 16 years. Now, a report looking into the state of the endangered snow leopard estimates between 220-450 annual deaths of the big cats, putting the species in a precarious position. It also warns that this number is likely even higher, as killings by farmers and poachers in remote mountain areas of central Asia often go undetected.

The report comes from wildlife monitoring network Traffic and was published last Friday, in anticipation of a UN meeting on the subject which will be held in New York. The animals naturally prey on Himalayan blue sheep and ibexes, but these animals are under pressure from farmers encroaching on their habitat. So, the leopards turn towards livestock for food. Traffic estimates that over half of the killings are done by farmers to stem further attacks on livestock. Around 20% of the total number are caught in snares set out for other animals, and roughly 20% are killed specifically for the illegal fur trade. Pelts from animals killed for other reasons are often sold, though, from example by farmers looking to make up for their losses — the pelts, claws, and fangs of the animal can fetch a good price on the black market.

Snow leopards’ range includes 12 nations, but over 90% of reported poaching takes place in five countries: China and Mongolia (where most snow leopards live), along with Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan (each having a population of a few hundred leopards). One of the leopards’ most powerful (and surprising) allies throughout their habitat are Buddhist monks, which patrol the grounds near their monasteries to keep an eye out for poachers.

Still, they cannot save the species alone, although they’re definitely the most awesome monks in my book. The report calls for stronger law enforcement on the issue, citing that less than a quarter of known poaching cases are investigated, with just one in seven being prosecuted. They also recommend a push for wider usage of leopard-proof corrals for yaks and horses, and insurance coverage for farmers. Such schemes are already being tested, for example in a village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

But the insurance you really need is for one of them stealing your heart, awwww!
Image credits Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr.

Around 200 pelts are illegally traded each year, the report found, with China, Russia, and Afghanistan being the major destinations. The number has thankfully been falling sharply in the last few years, however, especially in China, due to increasing police enforcement.

“Even if there is reduced demand for snow leopard skins, the killing will continue unless we all work together to drastically reduce human-wildlife conflict and ensure that mountain communities can co-exist with snow leopards,” said co-author Rishi Sharma of WWF.

“Compensation schemes and innovative predator-proof corrals are making a difference but we urgently need to expand these to benefit communities – and snow leopards – across Asia’s high mountains.”

Not only are the cats being hunted, but they’re also at risk from climate change — they will have to abandon roughly one third of their habitat as the treeline advances further up the mountain slopes and farmers move in to claim the land.

Hopefully, we’ll leave the animals time to recover until this happens.

2015 is the year of the Snow Leopard, but what do we know about this magnificent hunter?

Snow Leopards are some of the most magnificent creatures out there – living at elevations from 3,000 to 4,500 m (9,800 to 14,800 ft), they are reclusive animals that are rarely captured on camera. But these rare, beautiful grey leopards may go extinct before we get the chance to learn more about them – here’s why.

Behavior and way of life

Image source.

The elegant snow leopard is one of the world’s most elusive cats. Sparsely distributed across 12 countries in central Asia, it inhabits alpine and subalpine areas, enjoying the high mountains of Central Asia. Their range spans from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and Russia in the north to India and China in the east. China contains 60% of their existing habitat, and they have already disappeared from some of their historical ranges (like Mongolia). They love jumping on and off cliffs and in fact, they are great jumpers, leaping as far as 50 feet (15 meters), using their tails for balance. They also use their tails as blankets to protect the more vulnerable parts of their body.

For millennia, they’ve been the uncontested kings of the mountains, killing things up to three times bigger than them. One Indian snow leopard, protected and observed in a national park, is reported to have consumed five blue sheep, nine Tibetan woolly hares, twenty-five marmots, five domestic goats, one domestic sheep, and fifteen birds – in a single year! For an animal that typically weighs under 50 kgs, that’s quite remarkable.

Image source.

They are generally solitary creatures, except for mothers and their cubs, but unlike most predators, they’re not very territorial, and they rarely become aggressive when their territory is breached. Usually, they just avoid the transgressor. Snow leopards tend to mark along topographic features such as ridgelines or the base of cliffs.

A habitat range may be as small as 12 km2 (5 sq mi) or as large as 40 km2 (15 sq mi). They are masters of camouflage and ambush, which is another reason why they’re so difficult to photograph. In fact, as they are active at dawn and dusk, snow leopards are rarely even seen in the wild. Snow leopards almost never attack humans – only two instances are known, one in 1940, and another in 2008. A 2008 Natural World episode, “Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth”, interviewed a couple with a goat farm in Pakistan; the woman was bowled over by snow leopard escaping an enclosure where it had been feeding on the livestock, but she was not attacked by the cat, despite fainting and being helpless.

Image via Wikipedia.

Snow leopards cannot roar due to the physiology of their throat, and instead make a non-aggressive puffing sound called a ‘chuff’ – but that chuff sounds like a huge tractor is out to get you.

Threatened by extinction

“The snow leopard is a mysterious creature of strength and beauty, whose presence can rarely be proven but whose loss would leave a hole not just in the fragile ecosystems of the great mountain chains of Central Asia, but in our collective imagination and soul.”  – Peter Zahler, Assistant Director of WCS-Asia

Image via Snow Leopard Conservancy.

But snow leopards are starting to lose their status, their habitat, and their way of life, due to the most dangerous creature out there – humans. Expanding human settlements are reducing their habitats and global warming has caused the tree line to be increased in altitude, resulting in the decrease of wild prey that they depend on. Herders and poachers also hunt them down, although this is illegal.

Because they are so secretive, it’s hard to know exactly how many snow leopards there are in the wild; one generally accepted estimate puts the figure at 2,500 adults that can reproduce in the wild, and that’s an extremely worrying figure. Another one claims there are 4,000 adults, which is not a dramatic improvement. In 1972, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the snow leopard on its Red List of Threatened Species as endangered, and not much has improved since, despite significant efforts. As it seems to be the case with many endangered mammals, they are believed to have healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine, so more and more people hunt them down to sell their bodies for huge prices on the black market. Their fur is also a valued commodity.

Image via Wikipedia.

Some progress has been done in captivity. The animals usually give birth to two to three cubs in a litter, but can give birth to up to seven in some cases, and captivity breeding programs have proven surprisingly successful – but this does little to help the population in the wild. Over the past 20 years, wild snow leopard numbers have declined by at least 20%, though an exact estimate is hard to obtain.

There were also programs conducted with local farmers – who do have a point in saying that snow leopards sometimes hunt their livestock. The farmers are taught how to secure their barns and livestock holding areas against snow leopards and reimbursement programs have been set up to give the farmer fair market value for animals they have lost in return for allowing the snow leopards to live. It’s a win-win, but changing people’s minds is a tedious process. The WWF also has some healthy programs going on in the area, not only discussing and working with local communities, but also tackling wildlife trade. Since 1998, $7,000 have been paid out in compensation for lost animals, and $13,000 has been invested on improving livestock corrals and other infrastructure – a meager sum when it comes to protecting such an emblematic creature.

What you can do

Documentary footage of the snow leopard is scarce, as is photography. These remarkable creatures seem out of sight and out of mind, yet somehow we’re managing to destroy their population, directly or indirectly. But we can all play our small part and try to protect snow leopard. The simplest thing to do would be to donate – the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the Snow Leopard Trust are two organizations that accept contributions. You could also adopt a snow leopard (here, here or here) – you’ll get a cute plushie, some other gifts, as well as regular updates regarding snow leopard conservation.

If you live in one of the areas inhabited by snow leopards, you could address your political representative and ask him or her to make a stand for protecting them. At the very least, you should be aware. By this point, we’re basically causing a widespread, major extinction, and most people don’t even realize it. We’re killing creatures like the beautiful snow leopard, and we don’t even know it – so stay informed! Share information as much as possible, accumulate as much information as possible, and speak up! Speak up for wildlife, and for the things that deserve protection. Who knows, it might make all the difference in the world one day.

 

 

An extraordinarily well preserved Panthera blytheae skull.

Oldest “big cat” fossil discovered is four millions years old

An extraordinarily well preserved Panthera blytheae skull.

An extraordinarily well preserved Panthera blytheae skull.

Paleontologists have unearthed skull fragments in Tibet belonging to an ancient “big cat” species, which apparently may be the oldest discovered thus far. The fossils have been dated between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old and belong to a previously unknown species “similar to a snow leopard”, according to US and Chinese palaeontologists.

“This cat is a sister of living snow leopards – it has a broad forehead and a short face. But it’s a little smaller – the size of clouded leopards,” said lead author Dr Jack Tseng of the University of Southern California.

Using both anatomical and DNA data, the researchers characterized the fossils and thus found that these didn’t match any known records. The newly discovered species has been dubbed  Panthera blytheae. Since these are the oldest big cat fossils found thus far, they provide substantiating evidence that this great family originated in Asia and not in Africa, as it’s currently widely assumed.

“This ties up a lot of questions we had on how these animals evolved and spread throughout the world.

“Biologists had hypothesised that big cats originated in Asia. But there was a division between the DNA data and the fossil record.”

The Pantherinae subfamily or “big cats” as they’re commonly called includes living species today like the lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards. Other felines like cougars, lynxes, and domestic cats are smaller cousins belonging to the Felinae family, which diverged from Pantherinae some 6.37 million years ago.

[RELATED] Seeing the world through the eyes of a cat

The new big cat species is believed to have been similar to today's modern snow leopard. Image courtesy of snowleopard.in

The new big cat species is believed to have been similar to today’s modern snow leopard. Image courtesy of snowleopard.in

The first skull fragments belong to the newly discovered  Panthera blytheae were made in 2010 at the remote Zanda Basin in southwestern Tibet. Some 100 bones were unearthed, including crushed fragments of skulls belonging to at least 3 cats. One of the skulls is nearly complete, according to the team of paleontologists involved in the research.

“This is a very significant finding – it fills a very wide gap in the fossil record,” said Dr Manabu Sakamoto of the University of Bristol, an expert on Pantherinae evolution.

“The discovery presents strong support for the Asian origin hypothesis for the big cats.

“It gives us a great insight into what early big cats may have looked like and where they may have lived.”

Buddhist Monks step in to protect Snow Leopards

snow leopard 1

It’s currently estimated that only 4,510 to 7,350 snow leopards remain in the wild – though estimates rely on outdated information and are pretty rough. Given the development of the local environment, the numbers are probably optimistic.

Numerous agencies are working to conserve the snow leopard and its threatened mountain ecosystems which range across Asia, in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Kazahstan, and other countries in the area. But according to a new research, the leopards are also protected by hundreds of Buddhist monasteries on the Tibetan plateau.

Snow leopard approximate habitats.

Snow leopard approximate habitats.

The study, which was published in the journal Conservation Biology, shows that approximately half of all Buddhist monasteries are within snow leopard habitat and monks constantly patrol the wilderness to prevent poachers from killing the rare cats. They also try to educate both locals and tourists, teaching them the way of nonviolence, and at the very least, trying to convince them not to do any harm to local wildlife, one way or another.

snow leopard

“Buddhism has as a basic tenet — the love, respect, and compassion for all living beings,” said study co-author George Schaller, a biologist with the endangered cat conservation group Panthera, in a statement. “This report illuminates how science and the spiritual values of Tibetan Buddhism can combine their visions and wisdom to help protect China’s natural heritage.”

Poaching is a huge problem in the area, especially for large felines, which are hunted for fur and internal organs – which are very prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Locals also occasionally hunt them, either for the above reasons, or because they sometimes prey on their sheep and goats.

Cubs are also not spared.

Cubs are also not spared.

Via Discovery

Snow Leopard den

Snow leopard mother and cub den caught for first time on tape [VIDEOS]

Snow Leopard denMagnificently beautiful, the elusive snow leopard is a large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. Adapted to living in high altitudes, deep in the mountains, and preferring typically inaccessible areas for humans as their dens, has made snow leopards extremely hard to spot, and more importantly keep track off, since it’s an endangered species. Actually, just until recently, there has been no recorded footage of a snow leopard den.

Now, following the research work of scientists from Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization, and the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), not one, but two snow leopard dens have been located and filmed. Little is known about the elusive species, and this recent discovery will serve as an invaluable piece in the puzzle which serves to describe the life story of the snow leopard.

“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,” stated Dr. Tom McCarthy, Executive Director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program.

Scientists, along with a veterinarian, entered the two dens (one with a cub, the other with two), while the mothers were away hunting. The three cubs were carefully measured, weighed, tagged with a chip the size of a grain of rice, and photo documented. 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.

The gathered information in the upcoming months from their present effort, coupled with camera traps footage, information from captive specimens in zoos and whatever little else scientists know about the snow leopard will help organizations in their conservation plans.

Rare, beautiful snow leopard caught on tape

Unaware of the camera, the elusive animal walks right by while an adult female and a young snow leopard walk just a few more steps away. Perhaps even more important, another recording shows a leopard marking his territory, thus communicating with other snow leopards about gender and breeding status – and sending out a warning.

This sighting gives much needed hope, in a time when many believe the snow leopard is heading towards extinction, due to destruction of habitat, global warming, and poachers. There are currently only 5-7000 animals in the wild.

Snow leopards live between 3,000 and 5,500 meters above sea level and their secretive ways are mostly unknown. They are perfectly adapted for this environment, with their stocky bodies, thick fur, and their small, rounded ears, which prevent excessive heat loss.

New Andean cat population discovered

he Andean cat. © Jim Sanderson, PhD/Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation.

The Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita) is an extraordinary elusive creature, being relatively small, well camuflaged and incredibly hard to find dwelling in a habitat usually at 3,000 meters in altitude. Actually, up to the late 1990s the snow leopard-like cat was known to scientists only through a few pictures sporadically taken by locals when such a rare opportunity made itself possible.

Researchers have now recently made a significant find when such felines were found in the Patagonian steppe at elevations as low as 650 meters. This might help shed more insight on the Andean cat and help conservation efforts of thee species, which is classed as endangered by the IUCN Red List.

“These confirmed records show the lowest elevations ever reported for the Andean cat,” said Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) conservationist Andres Novaro, lead author of the study appearing in CATNews. “According to genetic studies underway led by Daniel Cossios, this new population appears to represent an evolutionary lineage distinct from the highland population.”

The Andean cat faces a number of threat which might lead it to extinction, be it deforestation, oil drilling, climate change, road building, getting killed by locals (they consider it a pest, and some hunt it for it’s supernatural power it allegedly confers when eaten). The Andean cat existence is heavily linked to its pray the mountain vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia) a rodent that looks like a rabbit, but is related to the chinchilla, which is also scarce to find.

Surprisingly, the Patagonia steppe is actually home to four wild cat species: Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), pampas cat (Leopardus pajeros), the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi), and the Andean cat, which is the most endangered.

“Discovering a new population of Andean cats is an important finding for this elusive and rare species,” said Mariana Varese, acting director of WCS’s Latin America and Caribbean Program. “Determining the range of the Andean cat in the Patagonian steppe will provide conservationists with a foundation for later conservation plans.”

Of the 36 species of wild cats living in the world, more than half, 22 that is, are classed as “small cats” (domestic cat-sized) and remain little known by the public and little aided by much of the conservation community.