In their natural environment, snow leopards face a number of human threats including poaching or capture for the black market. To determine how these threats, as well as natural predators and disease, affect snow leopard populations, scientists are seeking to learn their litter size in the wild, to figure out the percentage of wild cubs that survive into adulthood.
Most of what is known about snow leopards is from those in captivity where they have from one to three cubs.
As Dr. Howard Quigley, Panthera’s Executive Director of both Jaguar and Cougar Programs, emphasizes: “Knowledge about the first days and weeks of life is vital to our understanding of how big cat populations work, and how likely it is for a newborn to reach adulthood and contribute to a healthy population.”
The short video of snow leopards in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains was taken by Örjan Johansson, Panthera’s Snow Leopard Field Scientist and Ph.D. student, using a camera attached to an extend pole, as noted in Science Daily:
The team, which included a veterinarian, entered the two dens (the first with two cubs, and the second containing one cub) while the mothers were away hunting. All three cubs were carefully weighed, measured, photographed and other details were recorded. Two of the cubs were fixed with tiny microchip ID tags (the size of a grain of rice) which were placed under their skin for future identification. The utmost care was taken in handling the animals to ensure they were not endangered, which was the top priority of the team at all times. In the following days, the team monitored the mothers’ locations to ensure that they returned to their dens and their cubs, which they successfully did.
Scientists hope to find out the characteristics of a “typical natal den” as well as how it is selected, how long snow leopard cubs remain in dens, when they begin to accompany their mothers beyond the dens, how often and how long the mother leaves the cubs alone to hunt, how many cubs are typically born in the wild and other data.
The need to study “mountain ghosts,” as locals call them, is all the more necessary given the numerous threats to snow leopards. While legally protected in twelve countries, snow leopards are still considered Endangered according to the IUCN Red List.
As Panthera details, “as few as 3,500-7000 snow leopards are thought to remain in an estimated two million square kilometers of potential habitat across the Himalayas, Karakorams, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Tien Shans, and Altai ranges.” Excessive livestock grazing, is currently occurring on a “vast scale” in their habitat. Snow leopards are also being killed in retaliation for killing people’s livestock and by poachers, both for their fur and for their bones, which are used in traditional Asian medicine.
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