TWS member tracks the mystery of snow leopard populations

By Joshua Rapp Learn

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

It was 2009 in a small valley in the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, about 50 miles from the Chinese border. Local sheep and goat herders in the area had spotted a female snow leopard up on a cliff a year before and Jan Janecka wanted to investigate. He climbed for around 40 feet to a ledge covered in broken boulders, with a cave behind and was thrilled to find hair, scat and other clues that pointed to the likelihood that a female snow leopard used the area to raise cubs.

After nearly 10 years tracking snow leopards, it’s the closest the member of The Wildlife Society has ever come to actually seeing one in the wild.

“At some point they were probably sitting there hanging out exactly where I was,” he said. “That was pretty cool.”

Janecka has been tracking one of the world’s most elusive felines across deserts and some of the highest mountains in the world for years. He’s dealt with broken jeeps in snow-covered deserts and slept in local yurts — traditional Mongolian houses — in his quest to figure out how different populations of snow leopards (Panthera uncia) interact with each other across a vast range that includes parts of Mongolia, Nepal, India, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Kazhakstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Specifically, the assistant biology professor at Duquesne University has been working since 2006 to determine the leopards’ genetic makeups and potentially classify some cats into different subpopulations. To track the elusive cats, he and a huge number of other researchers have collaborated on the study by using camera traps and providing hair and scat samples to trace the DNA of the disparate felines. In this latest story in our Wild Cam series, we’ve taken a look at some of the information Janecka gathered and presented at TWS’ 2015 conference in Winnipeg.

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

A snow leopard checks out the camera in the Himalayas in Nepal. Janecka’s ongoing studies have found that the cats can be divided into three major geographic regions, or management units. A northern group includes mostly Mongolia with parts of Russia, northern China and Kazakhstan while a central group includes Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and northeastern India. The largest group is found around the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China and also may face one of the biggest problems with illegal wildlife tracking, Janecka says, though it’s hard to determine what’s going on in the area due to its inaccessibility. The central group has some problems with poaching as well, but is doing fairly well. The genetics of the central group also shares more overlapping genes with the other two groups.

©Jan Janecka

©Jan Janecka

Janecka and park ranger Bacik collect scat in Gobi Gurvansaikhan, or Three Beauties National Park. “With snow leopards the only real way to get population samples is scat,” Janecka said. Even though the cats have relatively high densities in some areas, their preferred terrain and the lack of road networks in the areas make them particularly difficult to catch. But they tend to drop scat in prominent places.

©Jan Janecka

©Jan Janecka

Finding scat is made even easier by the fact that the cats tend to make very visible scrapes in the ground nearby. They urinate or defecate on the scrape areas, which they dig up with their hind legs, to mark territory to other snow leopards in the area. Here, you can see such a mark in the snow surrounded by paw prints.

©Jan Janecka

©Jan Janecka

Tracking animals over long distances through such rugged terrain presents its challenges. In 2010 Janecka and crew were in route to Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area in southwestern Mongolia when they ran into some car trouble. It was around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and the driver was fixing the tailpipe and reattaching it with his bare hands. “If I had my hands out they were frozen in five minutes,” Janecka said. On the same trip, their old Russian jeep broke down and they had to hike a couple of miles before finding a local family’s home. They happened to have the same exact jeep and lent them the broken part, which they then used to drive about seven hours straight across a snowy plain to the nearest village to buy another part for their jeep. Janecka said this spirit of welcome surprised him time and time again during his work. “They really help each other there.”

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

While Janecka never saw a snow leopard personally, camera traps did. This shot was captured on Baga Bogd Mountain in Mongolia the first day they put the traps out. Snow leopards like to rub their faces on rocks, leaving some scent behind from a special gland in their cheeks. The smell will inform other snow leopards about their reproductive status.

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

An Argali sheep (Ovis ammon) stands on a hillside on Baga Bogd not far from the leopard shot in the previous photo. These sheep are common snow leopard prey.

©Jan Janecka

©Jan Janecka

Janecka holds the remains of what could have been a snow leopard meal in the Tost Mountains in Mongolia. “Ibex are one of their primary prey species,” Janecka says, but added that it was difficult to tell whether it was predated by a leopard or killed by a poacher in the area. The Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) could have also been killed by lynx (Lynx lynx), Tibetan wolves (Canis lupus chanco) or other predators. “There was no real evidence because everything was gone except the head.”

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

©Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy) and Bariushaa Munkhtsog (IRBIS/Mongolian Academy of Sciences)

Two snow leopard kittens play in the Argut Valley in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia, Russia.

Overall, Janecka said, research shows global populations of snow leopards are increasing.

“They’re actually recovering,” he said. “They’re recovering to the point where the IUCN might actually change them from endangered to threatened.”

But the research conducted by Janecka and local scientists like Bariushaa Munkhtsog from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Mongolia Snow Leopard Conservancy will help countries develop laws to protect the species from poaching and other issues they face in their habitat.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

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