Five snow leopards photographed in Tajikistan valley29/01/2012 20:05:55
Cubs carried off scientists' camera
January 2012: When scientists decided to carry out a biodiversity survey in a remote nature reserve in Tajikistan, they didn't expect to find a snow leopard hotspot - yet that's exactly what happened. In fact, two cheeky leopard cubs ran away with one of their surveillance cameras.
With the support of Panthera, the Zorkul survey scientists placed 11 automatic cameras at seven locations high up in the Wakhan mountain range in the Zorkul nature reserve near the Afghan border. Snow leopard signs had been found in the area, so the scientists were to gain some insight into their activity and behaviour in the region.
They were in luck. Over the survey period, the camera traps photographed five separate snow leopards living in one valley system, including a family with two cubs.
Cameras were left for three months
The snow leopard lives in the remote mountainous regions of central Asia. Protected by thick, smoky-grey fur, capable of leaping thirty feet and taking prey three times its own weight, it is well adapted to the cold, harsh landscape.
The IUCN lists the snow leopard as Endangered, and numbers are thought to have declined by at least 20 per cent in the last 16 years, largely due to habitat loss and poaching.
Shy and elusive nature makes conservation challenging
The shy and elusive nature of snow leopards makes conserving the species even more problematic, as it is not easy to estimate population numbers, or to identify critical habitat areas for protection.
The cameras also picked up many other high-mountain creatures, such as mountain Ibex, Marco Polo sheep (the world's largest wild sheep species), and a rare mountain weasel. The final survey also identified several new records of birds, mammals, plants, and rare insects.
According to the survey's lead scientist, Dr David Mallon: ‘This is the first detailed biodiversity survey of the area, and it's very exciting to see so much diversity. But the highlight was confirming the presence of what seems to be a healthy population of breeding snow leopards.'
So what do these results really mean for snow leopard conservation?
‘Snow leopards have low population densities, which means that large areas need to be protected in order to conserve this species effectively,' explains Dr Alex Diment from FFI.
‘This survey has revealed an unusually high number of snow leopards in the Wakhan Mountains, which indicates that this could be a key region for snow leopard conservation.'