Research & Monitoring

Understanding Snow Leopards & Their Prey

A good understanding of biology, behavior and ecology of the snow leopard and its prey is crucial for effective conservation measures. The field of population ecology has undergone tremendous development in the past decade, with sophisticated tools becoming available to estimate populations of rare and elusive species, such as the snow leopard that live in difficult-to-access habitats.

It is noteworthy here that despite much attention, less than 2% of the global snow leopard range has ever been sampled using scientifically robust and acceptable methods such as camera trapping and/or genetics.

Recognizing this, the Kathmandu Resolution 2017, endorsed by the high-level Steering Committee of the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) comprised of Environment Ministers of 12 snow leopard range countries emphasized the need for better and more expansive scientific monitoring of snow leopard populations. Moreover, given that the primary premise of the GSLEP program is to secure 20 landscapes by 2020, where each landscape is defined by the presence of 100 or more breeding snow leopards, it is essential that snow leopard population be monitored using reliable and replicable methods.

Monitoring the performance of GSLEP, inter alia, must be evaluated in terms of the snow leopard population and its trends, i.e., whether the populations are stable, increasing, or in decline. Developing and implementing a robust monitoring approach for snow leopard population across large landscapes is a major undertaking that would include rigorous sampling across a representative gradient of the snow leopard habitat, and a significant mobilization of financial resources, equipment, and human resources. Additionally, it will require collaborations at multiple levels to help design robust surveys, collect reliable data from the field, and estimate and report populations using robust analytical tools.

With the growing threats to snow leopards, including substantial changes already underway due to climate change, the need for information about snow leopard populations is now becoming a necessity. This data will provide a population baseline, which can be referenced for the years to come. This baseline will allow scientists to track snow leopard population trends that are essential in assessing its conservation status. The ability to monitor population trends is even more important than knowing the absolute population figure to evaluate the impact of conservation actions in the context of growing threats like poaching, poorly planned infrastructure, mining and climate change.

Bottlenecks

  • Lack of sufficient financial resources and equipment to conduct and analyze large scale surveys, including camera trapping data collection and management, analysis of genetic data (network of DNA labs and lab technicians), and supporting field work and time of biostatisticians and population experts.
  • Inadequate capacity to conduct field surveys across large landscapes, data preparation and analyses.
  • Lack of capacity to evaluate population trends in relation to large scale changes across the range driven by warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.
  • Lack of weather station data to understand links between weather changes and population dynamics.
  • Remoteness and security issues across parts of the distribution range.
  • Complicated procedures involved in receiving permits to use innovative research techniques (e.g. telemetry) that can improve the parameterization of sophisticated population estimation models.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Resources ($10 million) raised to support snow leopard surveys, equipment, data managers, lab technicians and research associates to manage and implement the surveys in the next 5 years.
  2. Government support for capacity building, coordination and field data collection, including understanding and monitoring trends driven by climate change.
  3. A general advice document on snow leopard monitoring is prepared.
  4. Detailed technical manual based on latest scientific advancements in population ecology and identifying future climate refugia, including Spatial Capture Recapture modeling, Site Occupancy analysis, Bayesian methods for estimating populations, and habitat suitability analyses, from multiple sources.
  5. A multilingual field-training training module is developed and adopted across range countries to conduct snow leopard surveys.
  6. A dynamic panel with international snow leopard experts, climate change and biodiversity experts, and population ecologists is formed to provide technical support to global snow leopard population assessments, and update the guidelines and training module every 5 years.