Wow, this is quite the week for snow leopards (Panthera uncia) with not one, not two, not three but four interesting stories coming out about these endangered big cats.
Let's start with the bad news. Climate change, as you might expect, could soon create trouble for snow leopards living in the Himalayas. According to a study conducted by scientists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and published in the June 2012 issue of Biological Conservation, warming temperatures and wetter conditions could cause trees to grow farther uphill than they do today. Because snow leopards live in mountainous regions above the tree line, this shift could result in the animals losing as much as 30 percent of their current habitat—from 217,000 square kilometers to 154,200 square kilometers. The cats can only climb so much higher on the mountains before they run out of space and suitable temperatures, so the advancing tree lines will not only restrict their current habitat but potentially put them into further conflict with humans and livestock.
Leopards are already facing multiple threats from poaching, overgrazing of their habitat by farm animals and other human–animal conflicts. "As grazing intensifies and the leopards' natural prey decline, they could begin preying more heavily on livestock, resulting in increased retaliatory killings," co-author Rinjan Shrestha, the WWF's snow leopard expert in Nepal, said in a prepared statement.
The study's authors recommend securing additional protected habitat for the snow leopards, especially because individual animals have very wide territories (up to about 100 square kilometers each) and they enjoy their solitude. Males have a tendency to aggressively defend their home turf from other males, but they do allow two or three females to live within their territories.
Pending TV stars
One of the reasons individual leopards keep such large territories is because the density of prey is quite low in the mountains. They often need to walk quite a distance between meals. A new study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) illustrates this nicely. The WCS recently captured two male snow leopards in Afghanistan and fitted them with satellite collars, the first use of this technology with the species in that country. Once the animals woke up, they quickly went on walkabout. The first leopard, captured and released on May 27, traveled 125 kilometers; the second, collared and released on June 8, traversed 153 kilometers by the time the WCS put out a press release about the research project on June 17. The animals' journeys are being documented for an upcoming Nat Geo WILD documentary, but the information will also help researchers to "learn more about the range, behavior, movements and habitat used by snow leopards," according to Peter Zahler, WCS Asia Program deputy director. "This information in turn will help us in our partnership with the Afghan government and local communities to design protected areas and management strategies to optimize the conservation of this big cat."
Snow leopards are only solitary after they get to adulthood, and they don't always live all that far away from humans. Researchers from Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust this week released video of two female snow leopards and her cubs in Mongolia's Tost Mountains. The animals were living in a den located just behind a rough, man-made wall. Check it out:
The team of researchers entered the den while the mother was away. They carefully measured, weighed and photographed the cubs as well as monitored the family unit for several days. The data provided what the team called a "rare glimpse" into the early life of snow leopards, including when and where they give birth and the size of their litters. "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," Howard Quigley, Panthera's executive director for its jaguar and cougar programs, said in a prepared release.
Our final snow leopard news item comes not from Asia but from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Two female leopard cubs made their video debut on July 12, one month after their male littermate had to be euthanized due to severe heart defects. All three cubs were also born with eye and eyelid defects known as multiple ocular coloboma, passed on by their father. Similar genetic problems have been observed in other zoo animals, because only about 550 slow leopards live and breed in captivity worldwide. The two remaining cubs recently received cardiac ultrasounds that revealed "mild functional deficiencies in several valves," but the zoo's director of animal health said their hearts are working fine. Because of their vision problems, though, it's unclear if or when they will go on public display. For now, you can see them here:
Previously in Extinction Countdown:
- Can Stem Cells Help Save Snow Leopards from Extinction?
- Good News for 2 Rare Leopard Species [Video]
- DNA could offer captive-breeding alternative to snow leopard studbook
- Afghanistan names its first endangered species
Photo: Snow leopard bearing a barely visible satellite collar. By John Goodrich, Wildlife Conservation Society