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Episode 263: Secrets of Snow Leopards

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Snow Leopard (Panthera unica

Image from https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/snow-leopard

This mysterious, rarely seen cat is often called the ghost of the mountains for its elusive nature and its high-altitude range, making it likely the highest altitude cat in the world. They are well adapted for life at these heights, with broad furred paws to balance their weight on the snow and specialised red blood cells that can carry more oxygen. Although they are closely related to tigers and other members of the Panthera lineage, they have different morphology, including a shorter muzzle, elevated forehead and a less developed lower jaw. The snow leopard has a complicated conservation story with many disagreeing over how it should be classified on the IUCN red list. But despite all the difficulties the species has faced and continues to face, its future looks a little brighter thanks to the hard work of scientists, conservationists and local communities throughout its home range. Snow leopards are vital indicators of the health of their alpine habitats, and so it is essential we keep a close eye on this charismatic species. 

 The rise of the ghost cat: snow leopard evolution and adaptations

Snow leopards are part of the Felidae family and a member of the charismatic panthera lineage, including tigers, lions, leopards and jaguars. The panthera lineage split off from the rest of the family, likely in Asia, around 6 million years ago with a primitive cat called Panthera blytheae, whose fossil record shows a similar skull shape to the modern-day snow leopard. After evolving in Asia, the cats migrated across the world and began to diverge into the different species we have today. The tiger and the snow leopard are most closely related to each other, although genetic studies revealed that the snow leopard genome contains a lot of similarities to lions, indicating there was likely some hybridisation between the two species in the past. 


The snow leopard lives in steep, high altitude habitat with jagged rocky cliffs often in some of the most remote areas of the world, as high as 10000 to 15000 metres above sea level. Their range covers the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation. Many of these locations also suffer from serious civil or political conflict and have poor infrastructure and severe poverty, making conservation in these areas a significant challenge. Not only is conserving these areas a challenge but living in them is

The range of the Snow Leopard (image from https://snowleopardconservancy.org/conservation-action/)

After diverging away from their sister species, the tiger, and moving into higher and higher altitudes, the species gained adaptations to help them survive in these harsh habitats. In particular, genetic studies highlighted alterations in genes coding for oxygen transport in the blood, resulting in red blood cells with specialised haemoglobin that carry more oxygen. These mutations are very beneficial under the low oxygen conditions of the highest mountains but could become dangerous at lower altitudes. This has led scientists and zookeepers to carefully consider captive breeding of snow leopards to ensure the breeding of individuals with less hypoxia genes that could be detrimental at lower elevations. 

The thin air and low oxygen at such high altitudes requires specialised respiratory physiology too. Their nasal cavities are particularly large, allowing freezing cold inhaled air to be heated before it reaches the lungs. Keeping warm internally is essential if these cats are to outpace their agile prey on the steep mountainsides, and their thick furry coats are essentially useless if they can’t keep their core temperatures up. 

Unlike the other Panthera species, snow leopards tend to use an overhead ambush to catch prey, rather than stalking prey over a distance. On the rugged slopes and crags of their home, this requires the cats to race headfirst down sharp inclines, clamber rapidly across rocky terrain, navigate through deep snow and restrain fast moving, agile prey like blue sheep or ibex. Their forelimbs are shorter than their hindlimbs and specially adapted to provide extra stability and support for grappling with large prey and for jumping and climbing. Snow leopards have been filmed in the wild jumping more than 45 feet!  Muscles in the shoulder and limbs are extra broad, allowing the cats to distribute their weight more evenly for walking across deep snow. The musculature and tendon structure of the snow leopard is unique among the rest of the Panthera, who mostly live in tropical forest or wide-open savannahs and don’t need to hunt across such extreme terrain. Snow leopards are also known for their extra-long tails that can be up to 3 metres long and are essential for keeping balance on precarious ridges and when chasing after prey. 

A snow leopard chasing down prey, using its magnificent tail to balance on the precarious terrain

Conservation controversy: the case of the Snow Leopard

In 2017, the IUCN sparked a lot of controversy in the conservation world by de-listing the snow leopard from endangered to vulnerable. Many felt this was a bad move, driven by a lack of adequate data. De-listing can also bring about a host of changes to the law, removing much needed financial and legal support, allowing increased hunting or human development in essential snow leopard habitat. 

A significant challenge in snow leopard conservation is simply identifying how many breeding individuals there are in the wild. The species is naturally elusive and hard to spot, as their grey and white coats allow them to blend in perfectly with the rocky terrain of their mountainous homes. Their populations are naturally sporadic and cover some of the highest and harshest areas of the world, making it almost impossible for researchers to get into these regions to study them. All of these issues are compounded by societal instability like conflict and poverty and lack of decent infrastructure. Recent technological advances like improved camera traps and genetic testing of scat are being used to get better estimates on population size and connectivity. Many more cats have been tranquilised and fitted with state of the art tracking collars  in recent years, allowing researchers to determine ranges, habitat usage and how often snow leopards encounter each other. From the data collected so far, it seems there are some positives and negatives. On the plus side, it seems that the scattered snow leopard populations don’t have any major human-built barriers between then and are still able to find each other and breed, allowing good gene flow. On the downside, it seems that populations are steadily decreasing, which may prompt a return to the endangered species list sometime soon. 

A snow leopard fitted with a GPS collar by the Snow Leopard Trust appears on a camera trap in Mongolia (image from https://snowleopard.org/our-work/our-progress/)

As with many big cats, human conflict and poaching are driving significant losses. In particular, declines in wild prey species, driven by unsustainable human hunting, are pushing snow leopards to prey on livestock. Although oftentimes snow leopard predation on livestock is wildly overestimated, analyses of scat in certain parts of their ranges shows that for some individuals, up to 70% of their diet is now made up of livestock.  For poor rural farmers living a hand to mouth existence with little hope of escaping poverty, these losses of vital income are simply not acceptable. Retaliation to snow leopard predation comes in the form of shooting or the poisoning of prey carcasses. To compound these losses, the cats will often be killed to prevent them hunting trophy species, which can bring a high price and prestige to poachers.

Recently, there has been a significant increase in the number of snow leopards being poached, with some estimates putting 450 cats taken each year for the illegal bone and fur market. The increase in demand has been traced back to China and Eastern Europe, where markets in the body parts of endangered species thrives. 

As with so many other species, environmental changes and habitat loss are causing declines too. Snow leopards are now found at only the very highest elevations, having been driven out of lower regions by human developments. This shrinking range is also being driven by climate change; as the planet warms, the forests spread higher and higher into the ideal alpine habitat the snow leopards use with recent research estimating 30% of such habitat is at risk. New infrastructure, such as roads, railways and mines are increasingly encroaching into snow leopard habitat. 

Local communities in snow leopard regions have played an important role in conservation. One such unexpected source of support is Buddhist monasteries throughout the mountain ranges. Buddhist beliefs strongly espouse the idea that all species are interconnected and worthy of their place on the earth and these ideals are backed by the hugely influential and admired figure of the Dalai Lama, who has been an outspoken advocate of conservation for his whole life. Buddhist monks have had active roles in several conservation projects, including carrying out censuses of blue sheep and interviews with locals to identify their attitudes towards illegal hunting. They often actively work to protect religious sites, which by proxy protect vital habitat for snow leopards and many other species. The monks and their monasteries are well respected, and their significant influence over the locals has boosted conservation efforts in their local regions.  

An example of a predator proof corral built by the Snow Leopard Conservancy

The snow leopard conservation effort is a great example of the importance of community involvement. The snow leopard trust works with local communities to lift locals out of poverty by working with farmers and herders to protect their livestock from snow leopard attacks. They build predator proof corrals, teach good herding practice and provide livestock vaccination and (in actual fact, many more livestock are lost of disease than predators) and insurance to pay farmers when snow leopards do take their animals. Local women are taught to produce handicrafts like pet toys, rugs and ornaments, which are then sold via the snow leopard trusts website to help boost their income. If you’re looking for a gift or a treat for yourself, you can visit the online shop at https://snowleopard.org/our-work/conservation-programs/snow-leopard-enterprises/and shop guilt free! Many communities have signed a conservation agreement that stipulates all community members must follow conservation rules, including a ban on poaching. If everyone follows the rules and no cats are trapped in the region, all families receive a cash bonus at the end of the year. But if poaching occurs in the community, everyone loses the bonus. 

The snow leopard trust also trains law enforcement to tackle poaching more effectively with the Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Programme, led by Interpol trainers. Often highly organised groups are behind poaching and so enforcement officers simply haven’t had enough resources to adequately tackle the issue. In Russia, a particularly successful intervention involved recruiting former poachers to locate and remove snares to reduce snow leopard killings in the area, which became a massive problem after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

 

Conservation heroes and organisations!

 

The Snow Leopard Trust 

https://snowleopard.org/about/

Founded by Helen Freeman in 1981, the trust aims to protect the snow leopard from their numerous threats through community-based conservation efforts. They carry out research to better understand snow leopard habitat and behaviour to better inform conservation interventions. Education and community outreach is also a massive part of their ethos, and this involvement of locations has significantly improved the future of the snow leopard. You can donate to them, adopt a snow leopard, or buy gifts through their online shop to support their activities. 

The Snow Leopard Conservancy 

https://snowleopardconservancy.org/

This is a not-for-profit organisation founded by Dr Rodney Jackson, a world leading snow leopard researcher. They train biologists in the snow leopard range areas in field and survey methods and work with local communities to implement initiatives like predator proof corrals and economic incentives to help shift the view of snow leopards away from pests to valuable assets. They have a number of ways to get involved, including adoption, an online shop and links to companies that provide Himalayan treks for tourists, offering a once in a lifetime experience but also an important source of income for locals. Check out these snow leopard treks at https://snowleopardconservancy.org/get-involved/. Maybe one day you will have the chance to sight the ghost of the mountains yourself! 

Amazing videos!


 

References

Forrest, J.L. Wikramanayake, E. Shrestha, R. Areendran, G. Gyeltshen, K. Maheshwari, A. Mazumdar, S. Naidoo, R. Thapa, G.J. and Thapa, K. (2012) ‘Conservation and climate change: assessing the vulnerability of snow leopard habitat to treeline shift in the Himalaya.’ Biological Conservation, 150(1), pp 129-135

https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22732/50664030

Janceka, J. Hacker, C. Broderick, J. Pulugulla, S.H. Auron, P. Ringling, M. Nelson, B. Munkhtsog, B. Hussain, S. Davis, B.W. and Jackson, R. (2020) ‘Noninvasive genetics and genomics shed light on the status, phylogeography and evolution of the elusive snow leopard.’ Conservation Genetics in Mammals, pp 83-100

Li, J. Weckworth, B.V. McCarthy, T.M. Liang, X. Liu, Y. Xing, R. Li, D. Zhang, Y. Xue, Y. Jackson, R. Xiao, L. Cheng, C. Li, S. Xu, F. Ma, M. Yang, X. Diao, K. Gao, Y. Song, D. Nowell, K. He, B. Li, Y. McCarthy, K. Paltsyn, M.Y. Sharma, K. Mishra, C. Schaller, G.B. Lu, Z. and Beissenger, S.R. (2020) ‘Defining priorities for global snow leopard conservation landscapes.’ Biological Conservation, 241

O’Brien, S.T. and Johnson, W.E. (2007) ‘The evolution of cats.’ Scientific American, 297(1), pp 68-78

Rashid, W. Shi, J. Rahim, I. Sultan, H. Dong, S. and Ahmad, L. (2020) ‘Research trends and management options in human-snow leopard conflict.’ Biological Conservation,  242. 

Smith, H.F. Townsend, K.E.B. Adrian, B. Levy, S. Marsh, S. Hassur, R. Manfredi, K. and Echols, M.S. (2021) ‘Functional adaptations in the forelimb of the snow leopard (Panthera unica)’ Integrative and Comparative Biology, 61(5), pp 1852-1866

Taub, H. (2018) ‘The role of religion and spirituality in Snow Leopard conservation on and around the Tibetan Plateau.’ Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal, 12(1)

MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08

January 12, 2022
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