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Snow leopard study in the Almaty area to be an international collaboration

22 may 2014, 13:06
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Most of the world’s endangered snow leopards live in countries where it’s difficult for Westerners to conduct wildlife research – Pakistan and Afghanistan because of political turmoil and China because of red tape.

But Kazakhstan has no such obstacles – and in fact wants more research on its snow leopards.

That eagerness had led to a new project for a couple of globe-trotting biologists, Dr. Owen Nevin of Australia’s Central Queensland University and Dr. Ian Convery of Great Britain’s University of Cumbria.

The two, whom I interviewed recently on a Skype conference call, will be trying to determine how many snow leopards live in the 730-square-kilometer Almaty State Nature Reserve near Kazakhstan’s largest city.

They will also be trying to assess whether climate change is having an impact on the snow leopard population in the reserve’s 5,000-meter-high Tian Shen Mountains.

The study’s ultimate goal is to come up with ways to save the cats, of course. Between 4,500 and 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild, 60 percent of them in China, Owen said.

The seeds for the Kazakhstan snow-leopard study were sown when Owen and Ian went to the Almaty nature reserve two years ago to study Owen’s specialty: brown bears.

Dr. Owen Nevin’s studies of  large meat eaters like bears has taken him to some beautiful country.

Dr. Owen Nevin’s studies of large meat eaters like bears has taken him to some beautiful country.Photo courtesy of Dr. Owen Nevin.

They set up camera traps to photograph the bears as part of an effort to determine their numbers.

And they did a habitat assessment – that is, an evaluation of whether the environment offered enough resources for the bears to thrive.

While they were doing the bear project, the reserve staff “mentioned they often saw snow leopards,” Owen said. “They were particularly keen to do a snow leopard project in the park.”

That desire led to a collaboration among Owen, Ian, the reserve and the Energy and Ecology Department of Kazakh National University in Almaty.

The Snow Leopard Network, an international organization that is trying to save the species, provided a $50,000 grant to fund the project.

The study will be “a very important first step in population monitoring and understanding the impacts of climate change on the snow leopard in Kazakhstan,” said Dr. Charadutt Mishra, the executive director of the Seattle, Washington-based Snow Leopard Network. “So far, not a single study in Kazakhstan has undertaken a robust population estimation of the snow leopard, let alone population monitoring.”

The main tool the researchers will use to determine the leopard population will be camera traps.

In July or August they will set up about 60 to 80 camera traps on ridges or trails the leopards frequent.

The cameras contain infrared sensors. When an animal passes by, a sensor detects its body heat, prompting the camera to take a picture.

Researchers get the best photo results when they place the cameras at “constriction points” – narrow places the animals pass through.

One kind of constriction point is a ridge that a snow leopard has to cross.

Another is a game trail used by both predator and prey.

“Game trails tend to overlap on each other – a lot of species use the trails,” Owen noted.

The reserve staff will play a key role in deciding the camera trap locations, he said. “They know the park like the backs of their hand.”

Only about 100 to 150 snow leopards are believed to be in the reserve, so “most of the animals we photograph will not be snow leopards but snow leopard prey,” Ian said.

Dr. Ian Convery has studied snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan, too.

Dr. Ian Convery has studied snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan, too. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ian Convery.

The main prey are mountain goats and sheep, hares, pikas and birds. Pikas are chubby little rodents that have some features of mice and some features of rabbits.

Every individual animal in a species has distinguishing characteristics, so the camera traps will help the researchers identify how many leopards they’ve photographed. And that number will help them estimate the reserve’s population.

“For any conservation project, knowing how many you have is of critical importance,” Owen said. “You don’t know whether you’re succeeding if you don’t know how many you have.”

The reserve staff will maintain the camera traps during the 18-month study. Owen and Ian will return to the park in February or March of 2015 to check on the progress of the study and in July or August of 2015 to take a final look at the results.

They will also hold a workshop in Almaty in the spring of 2015 about their research, including the preliminary results.

The two researchers said they hope the reserve staff continues the work after the study period is over. That’s the beauty of a project that “builds capacity” – that trains locals in how to use camera traps, conduct habitat assessment and obtain and evaluate other information, Ian said.

The question of whether climate change is affecting the park’s snow leopards will be more difficult to determine than an estimate of the cats’ numbers.

Anyone who has been to the mountains and lakes in the Almaty area can see climate change at work. Glaciers are shrinking, and the snow line is receding. And melting ice and snow are causing lakes in and below the mountains to swell.

Snow leopards do best above the tree line, or the area where vegetation grows.

“What snow leopards like is steep, rocky terrain – they don’t particularly like trees,” Owen said.

A snow leopard.

A snow leopard. ©Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

They’ve become adept at hunting prey in these no-vegetation conditions.

Climate change is raising the tree line, however.

Will the leopards be able to adapt to vegetation in their habitat, or will they suffer from the change?

Owen and Ian will try to decide that by using a scientific tool known as fuzzy logic modeling.

Fuzzy logic uses both quantitative data – the current number of leopards, for example – and qualitative data – such as assessment of habitat – to make predictions.

The modeling tool will do that by producing different scenarios of climate change, and how snow leopards are likely to fare under each.

A major climate-change threat to the leopards is whether they’ll be able to catch as much prey in areas that once were rocky but now have vegetation.

A snow leopard

A snow leopard. Photo courtesy of snowleopardconservancy.org

Another threat is conflicts with those who raise livestock.

Climate change has led to shepherds grazing their flocks at higher elevations, encroaching on the snow leopards’ range.

It’s also led to herders grazing their animals longer in the mountains – later in the autumn and earlier in the spring. That’s because climate change has spawned higher temperatures, delaying the onset of winter and hastening its end.

Although Owen and Ian are unaware of reports of conflicts between shepherds and snow leopards in Kazakhstan, “this is definitely happening in Kyrgyzstan,” said Ian, who conducts research there.

Owen and Ian worked together at the University of Cumbria in Carlisle, England, before Owen became head of the Central Queensland University campus in Gladstone, Australia.

He has studied brown bears in British Columbia for two decades, and has also done research on black bears, grizzly bears, wolves and tigers.

Ian, who heads Cumbria’s Center for Wildlife Conservation, has spent years doing research in Mozambique. One of his interests is the relationship between nature reserves and people living near them.

 


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