SEATTLE ‒ In May, Woodland Park Zoo celebrated the birth of three snow leopard cubs. Now, the zoo and its conservation partner, the Snow Leopard Trust, are announcing that a research team in Mongolia has, for the first time ever, located the den sites of snow leopard cubs and captured video in the wild.
The Snow Leopard Trust has posted the video on its YouTube channel and additional photos on its blog.
The snow leopard is a moderately large cat native to the high mountain ranges of Central Asia and Russia, including in Afghanistan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan. Snow leopard scientists estimate as few as 4,000 may be left in the wild.
Woodland Park Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan for snow leopards, aimed at keeping a genetically diverse and viable population in accredited zoos in North America. Thirty-four snow leopards have been born at the zoo.
The announcement of the births in the wild is exciting news for both the zoo and the conservation groups.
“This is incredible,” says Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust. “Snow leopards are so rare and elusive that people often talk about them as ‘ghosts’ of the mountains. This is the first documented visit of a den site with cubs and thanks to this video we can share it with the world.”
Using GPS radio collars, an international team of scientists has been tracking snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert since 2008. In May, two of the study’s females began to restrict their daily movements to smaller and smaller areas, which the team interpreted as a signal that both were preparing to give birth. Traveling through steep and rocky mountain outcroppings, the team followed VHF signals transmitted by the collars and finally located the dens on June 21.
Only a few miles apart, both dens were high up in steep canyons. The first den was in a big cave with a man-made rock wall blocking most of the entrance. “As we stood outside the den we could hear the cub and smell the cats but not see anything inside the den,” noted researcher Orjan Johansson of Sweden. He and his colleagues, Sumbee Tomorsukh of Mongolia, Mattia Colombo of Italy, and Carol Esson of Australia, had to think fast and decided to tape a camera to their VHF antenna. Extending the camera over the wall they were able to film the inside of the cave. Their remarkable footage shows a female snow leopard lying tucked against the wall staring at the entrance with a paw over her tiny cub.
At the second den, the team found two male cubs in a narrow crack in a cliff wall. After confirming their mother was out on a kill, the scientists entered, photographed the cubs and obtained hair samples that will allow them to establish the cubs’ genetic identification and confirm the gender. They also took weights and measurements and implanted PIT tags (tiny tracking microchips similar to those used by pet owners). Both cubs had full stomachs and appeared to be in good condition.
The team handled the cubs with care and took their measurements as quickly as possible. “This was an unprecedented opportunity. We wanted to be as careful as possible and only take the most pressing data,” says Rutherford. The days following the den visits the team listened with VHF from a distance to make sure the females returned. Their constant monitoring has confirmed that both females are still with their cubs. The research teams will not be visiting the cubs or the den sites again in order to limit disturbance to the den areas and the cubs themselves.
Woodland Park Zoo cooperates with partners in 36 field conservation projects in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. One of the most significant of those partnerships is with the Snow Leopard Trust, which was created at Woodland Park Zoo in 1981 by staff member Helen Freeman.
The zoo’s own snow leopards have engaged in several pilot tests to help their cousins in the wild, including testing motion sensor research cameras, testing cologne as an attractant to lure wild snow leopards to research cameras and GPS collar sites and testing GPS collars.
“Aside from the sheer awe factor of catching the first-ever glimpse of a mother and cub inside a den, these findings are incredibly important for snow leopard conservation,” said the zoo’s Vice President of Field Conservation Fred Koontz. “This important research is an exemplary example of the critical partnerships zoos share with professional conservation organizations, range country experts, and government and international agencies to help preserve the future of wildlife and their natural habitat. Snow leopards in zoos, like our cubs, are conservation ambassadors for their species in the wild and help to inspire visitors to learn more about how to save this endangered cat that is struggling to survive in its range countries.”
The endangered snow leopard will be in the spotlight at Woodland Park Zoo’s sixth annual Snow Leopard Day: Asian Wildlife Conservation on Saturday, August 4. Hosted by the zoo and the Snow Leopard Trust, the event will illustrate how the zoo’s partnership is helping to save the endangered cats and bringing life sustaining commerce to indigenous families. Activities also will focus on logging and palm oil, and how people’s choices and actions can help to save orangutans, Asian elephants, hornbills, tree kangaroos and other endangered animals. The day’s activities will include keeper talks, face painting, crafts and more. Free with zoo admission or membership. Visit www.zoo.org for more information.
The Snow Leopard Trust is working hard to improve protection for the cats. However, due to their elusive nature, very little is known about snow leopards in the wild. Birth rates, sex ratios, cub sizes, litter sizes, and cub survival rates have never been documented but are critical to understanding—and planning for—the survival of the species. Follow-up assessment of cub survival will enable the Snow Leopard Trust to clarify the potential for snow leopard populations to grow and recover from declines.
This long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi is a joint project with Snow Leopard Conservation Fund and Panthera, and is in cooperation with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.
Snow Leopard Trust
Snow leopards are one of the most endangered big cats in the world. Founded in 1981, the Snow Leopard Trust is the largest and oldest organization devoted to protecting the endangered snow leopard. The Snow Leopard Trust has been active in Mongolia for over a decade conducting grassroots conservation, education and research. Snow Leopard Trust: www.snowleopard.org