SEFS doctoral student Shannon Kachel recently led the capture and first successful satellite collaring of a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in Kyrgyzstan! The female, estimated to be between 6 and 7 years old, was caught near the border with China in the Sarychat-Ertash Strict Nature Reserve in the Issyk-kul Province of Eastern Kyrgyzstan.
The news was particularly exciting since snow leopards are among the most secretive and least studied of the big cats. They are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and scientists estimate that only 4,500 to 10,000 adult snow leopards remain in the wild. The exact number is difficult to pinpoint, though, since few leopards are ever seen. That’s why the GPS collaring is such an important breakthrough, as it will open an unprecedented window into the leopard’s movements and range—and also help with broader conservation efforts in the region.
Kachel, who is working with Professor Aaron Wirsing in the Predator Ecology Lab, is the principal investigator on a project involving a diverse range of international partners, including Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, and several Kyrgyz state agencies and research institutions. He and his research team had spent months trying for a successful capture, including suffering through several near misses. In the video below, for instance, a snow leopard investigates but ultimately shuns a snare on the right side of the frame. “That one is truly painful for me to watch,” he says. (The relevant footage ends around 43 seconds.)
So when Kachel was there for the actual capture of the female snow leopard, the experience was all the more unforgettable.
“When trapping snow leopards,” he says, “we continually monitor the status of the traps using radio transmitters that trigger an alarm when a trap is disturbed. At any hour of the night, we might be called on to hike out into sub-zero temperatures to release the animal as quickly as possible. On this particular night, I’ll admit that after my share of false alarms, I forced myself to keep my excitement in check for the long, dark hike up the canyon to the trapline. Even as I approached the final few meters to the trap, I still couldn’t see what we’d caught, until at the last minute, F1 (the cat’s designation) jumped up as far as the snare on her foot would allow her. She is the first wild snow leopard I’ve ever seen—after nearly nine months of studying the species in the field here in Central Asia—which made the experience all the more exhilarating. I didn’t really let it sink in until we had her safely collared and released.”
Kachel’s research is among only a handful of telemetry or satellite-based studies of snow leopards, and it is the first to focus on a population that exists independent of domestic livestock and the conflicts between large predators and grazing. Collaring this snow leopard, he says, will finally give researchers the opportunity to investigate snow leopard ecology in rare depth. Among other questions, they’ll get to explore the behavioral and numerical dynamics between snow leopards and their prey (mostly ibex and argali), as well as the dispersal patterns of subadult animals (tracks near the trap site suggest the leopard may have been traveling with three subadults on the verge of dispersing to find territories of their own).
Perhaps most critical for such a threatened species, this project will also give researchers a chance to answer the basic question of what kills snow leopards. It will help them build a more comprehensive understanding of direct threats to the species, and how to anticipate and account for the effects of human activities, like grazing and mining—as well as the risks climate change could pose in the snow leopard’s high mountain habitat.
Eventually, Kachel hopes to expand the study and collar the wolves that share the landscape with the snow leopards, and to investigate the direct and indirect effects of competition and coexistence between the two carnivores. He also would like to extend his project to neighboring areas to investigate interactions between snow leopards and human activities.
In the meantime, he can savor an incredible research accomplishment, which he says belongs to a wide range of partners.
“This truly was a team effort,” says Kachel. “I’m deeply grateful to the dozens of folks who have worked hard to make this dream a reality, and who put their trust in me to realize this vision—in particular Professor Wirsing here at SEFS, along with Tom McCarthy, Zairbek Kubanychbekov, Rana Bayrakcismith and Tanya Rosen Michel at Panthera.”
Camera trap photo of a snow leopard in the study area © Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU; Kachel listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar © R. Berlinski/Toledo Zoo/Panthera; video clip of snow leopard © Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU.