Snow leopard biologyAdults are solitary, although the home ranges of males and females overlap extensively (7). Most active at dawn and dusk, snow leopards are opportunistic predators capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight (3). Snow leopard statusThe snow leopard is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1). Snow leopard threatsThe natural prey of the snow leopard have been systematically hunted out of many areas of the high central Asian mountains and leopard numbers have declined as a result (3). Snow leopard conservationSnow leopards are protected throughout most of their range and international trade is banned by their listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (5). To learn more about a Whitley Award-winning conservation project for this species, click here.
Terms of Use - The displayed portlet may be used as a link from your website to ARKive's online content for private, scientific, conservation or educational purposes only. MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends. While some experts defend higher estimates of the elusive cat’s numbers, others say it’s bad science that could hurt the species.
A new estimate of the global population of snow leopards—a rare big cat thought to prowl about 1.2 million square miles of remote, rugged mountain terrain across 12 Central Asian nations—would appear to be an uncommon bit of good news for wildlife conservation.
Published last month in Snow Leopards, a 644-page compendium on snow leopard science and conservation, the estimate puts the global snow leopard population at 4,700 to 8,700 animals across 44 percent of the species’ range, compared with earlier projections of around 3,900 to 7,500 animals in total. There was not enough information available to estimate how numerous the ghostly spotted leopards might be throughout their mountainous habitat, said Peter Zahler, the coordinator of the snow leopard program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who coauthored the Snow Leopards chapter containing the population estimate. Other experts say the available data don’t support the revised figure even across a subsection of the animal’s range, and they worry that it could create complacency among government officials and the public about curbing threats to the snow leopard’s survival. Ale, whose research and conservation work have focused on snow leopards in the Himalayas, is among the nearly 200 authors who contributed to Snow Leopards. This disagreement among big-cat experts follows an unusually public controversy over the global tiger count. Both disputes highlight the challenges of studying elusive big cats in their native habitats and how conscious all sides are of managing the public’s enthusiasm for saving them. The count was based on field data and observations shared in 2008 at a conference in Beijing attended by government officials, scientists, and conservationists. Zahler and Tom McCarthy, the executive director of the snow leopard program for the conservation group Panthera and coeditor of Snow Leopards, both anticipated criticism of the revised population count. While some of the data were gathered via tracking, camera trapping, or genetic sampling of snow leopard fecal samples, the studies are being conducted across too small an extent of the cat’s range to justify the higher population estimate, he said. McCarthy agreed that with an animal as difficult to observe as the snow leopard, informed guesses continue to play a big part in estimating the size of the population. All the researchers agreed on at least one thing: With snow leopards facing multiple threats—including poaching of both the cats and their prey, retribution killings by herders for livestock losses, increased mining and road building in their habitats, and climate change—it would be a mistake to cut back on conservation efforts. Find out why tracking snow leopards with GPS collars is an indispensable part of our efforts to save them – and how we try to minimize the impact the collaring has on the cats. Sometimes, people suggest that in order to protect wildlife, humans should just leave animals alone.
Of course, in ancient times, their unspoiled range used to provide plenty of everything the cats needed. Along with other technological innovations, the technology to study rare and elusive species has also seen rapid advances.

In fact, we’ve learned much of what we know about snow leopards today – from their spatial needs to their major food sources – from the location data scientists collected from such collars over the last decade.
For instance, it was only after one of our radio-collared young male snow leopards left his mother’s home range and moved some 60 km across inhospitable Gobi steppes to the next mountain chain and established his home range there, that we realized the importance of protecting the intervening steppe habitats between mountain ranges. If you’ve followed some of the adventures of our field researcher and collaring expert Orjan Johansson on this blog, you know that collaring snow leopards is as difficult as it is important – for several reasons. Since 2009, our team has collared a total of 19 cats, which has allowed us to develop a method for capture and immobilization that can be considered best practice in the field.
Building on existing studies on the immobilization of bears and lions with a combination of sedatives and tranquilizers, and seeking the advice of experienced zoo veterinarians, our team has developed a drug protocol specifically designed for the immobilization of snow leopards. Since snow leopards are most active at dusk and dawn, most captures happen when it’s very cold. When temperatures and terrain are considered safe, the team administers an antidote to help the cat recover as soon as they have fitted the collar and gathered all samples, keeping the immobilization time as short as possible.
Capture and immobilization of any animal, particularly of an endangered species, is a highly skilled job and cannot be learnt by simply reading a bunch of papers or following field guides. As of today, we are tracking 5 collared cats in our Long-Term Ecological Study in Mongolia. This paper was the result of a collaborative effort between the Snow Leopard Trust and our Mongolia Partner the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Panthera, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and the Swedish National Veterinary Institute.
The snow leopard has many adaptations for its cold habitat; long body hair and thick, woolly belly fur, large paws and a well-developed chest and enlarged nasal cavity that warms the cold air as it is breathed in (6). Females reach sexual maturity at two to three years and the mating season runs from early January to mid-March, when long-drawn-out wailing calls can be heard echoing amongst the cliffs (7).
Their prey consists mainly of wild sheep and goats, although livestock will also be taken, especially if wild prey has been depleted (3). Big cats often turn to domestic stock as an alternative source of food and this can incite retaliation from local farmers (3). The International Snow Leopard Trust and the Snow Leopard Conservancy are the world's two leading organizations dedicated specifically to conserving this endangered cat (6) (8). An upbeat report released during an April meeting of government officials from tiger range nations claimed a 20 percent increase in the species’ global population since 2010. Improved technologies for assessing snow leopard populations, including more durable camera traps and satellite tracking collars, “have given us a better idea of what snow leopards’ home range is,” Zahler said. The rest is still guesswork, even if it comes from people working on the ground in snow leopard range states. Unfortunately, in today’s globalized world, just keeping our distance won’t be enough to ensure the survival of endangered species like the snow leopard. What we can do, however, is to find ways for species like the snow leopard to coexist with humans. Our best chance to get the information we need to devise effective conservation strategies for snow leopards is through equipping wild cats with GPS collars and tracking their movements. Often, these relatively flat areas are under particular pressure from the development of new roads and mining operations. There’s the tricky terrain; temperatures tend to be freezing, and wild snow leopards don’t exactly seek human company – so they have to be immobilized in order for us to fit a collar on them. Orjan and his colleagues, global leaders in snow leopard research, have now published[i] the results of their experiences and insights for safe immobilization of wild snow leopards in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, a peer-reviewed scientific publication.
Used with skill, these snares are safe for the cats, and once a snare is tripped, an alarm sounds that instantly alerts our researchers to investigate the site.

Cats that have been immobilized with this method have shown good physiological responses and minimal side effects.
However, if cold temperatures pose a threat to an anesthetized snow leopard during its recovery, the team may move it to a safer terrain and allow more time for the anesthetic to wear off before waking the cat.
Aylagch (referred to as M9, teal circle) walked north from our study area in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park across the flat steppe to his new home range in the Nemegt mountains. The data we’ve gathered from their collars has helped us understand more about snow leopards and their behaviors and needs, from dietary habits to range sizes.
The long, thick tail is almost a metre in length and is used for balance and as added insulation when wrapped around the body and face at rest (6). Litter size is usually two to three cubs, which are born with black spots (7), and become independent from their mother at over two years old (3).
Snow leopard fur was once highly prized in the international fashion world and around 1,000 pelts were traded a year in the 1920a€™s (3). Both organisations have developed a multifaceted approach to the conservation of this species; involving research and data storage, educational initiatives, community-based conservation, and the protection of livestock to prevent retributive killing of snow leopards (6) (8). Female, 20s, world traveler, published wildlife photographer, wolfdog owner, canine foster mom, running a mini-farm in Oregon.
Today, humans are impacting global and local ecosystems in various ways – on scales large and small: Our energy consumption has effects on the global climate – and local precipitation patterns and temperatures in snow leopard range countries. But if the species you’re trying to understand – and ultimately protect – is as elusive and rare as the snow leopard, visual observation is nearly impossible, and there is little previous information to deduce from.
Without radio collaring, we would have never realized the important role the play in the dispersal of snow leopards.
Our highly professional team of scientists is doing all they can to minimize the impact on the cats and keep them safe. Our team does this with isolating blankets or sleeping bags, warm water bottles, and constantly monitoring body temperature.
We are currently assisting and sharing our experiences with WWF, helping them with their plans to conduct a radio-collaring study on snow leopards in Nepal. This information helped convince authorities to protect parts of this steppe between the mountain ranges. And it has helped local communities to convince the government to establish a Local Protected Area in our study region in the Tost Mountains, including the intervening steppe habitats between Tost and the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park where our radio-collared cat dispersed and established his home range. The short forelimbs and long hind limbs enable this leopard to be particularly agile in its steep and rugged habitat (6).
Local people are involved in various initiatives and there are plans to link fragmented populations by habitat corridors (3), which may improve the chances of the long-term survival of this secretive and critically endangered cat. Our tastes in fashion here in the West influence what kind of livestock are reared by herders in Central Asia – and how much wild prey populations of the snow leopard get depleted as a result. Since every species has a unique physiology, finding the right mix of drugs to achieve safe immobilization with minimal side effects is challenging. Our technological innovations help make minerals such as gold so indispensable that more and more pristine mountain ranges of Central Asia are being dug up to meet the demand.

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