Snow leopard (Panthera uncia (Uncia uncia))
Mohamed bin Zayed Species project number 0925696
Project Title: 026 - Snow Leopards In Nepal, Pakistan and Mongolia
We refined non-invasive genetic methodologies for surveying the endangered snow leopard, conducted field surveys in areas lacking current information on population size or structure, and assessed population variation across large sections of the cat’s range in Central Asia. We trained range-country biologists in field and molecular genetic techniques, and helped build the capacity of wildlife genetics laboratories in Nepal and Bhutan. Our increased samples from Mongolia will enable a better understanding of snow leopard population connectivity at the landscape level, for the first time, a key focus for Phase II of our project.
Project Objectives (Phase I, 2009-2010):
1) Refine non-invasive fecal (scat) DNA techniques and test the use of these procedures for identifying critical landscape corridors necessary to create a functional protected area network for snow leopard and its prey species;
2) Train a team of local biologists and community wildlife monitors capable of collecting scats for genetic analysis;
3) Conduct pilot tests in three countries (Pakistan, Nepal and Mongolia) with key snow leopard habitat to evaluate the effectiveness of this technique for identifying and ranking corridors which link existing protected areas.
Principal Project Investigators:
Dr. Rodney Jackson (Snow Leopard Conservancy, USA)
Dr. Jan Janecka (College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University, USA)
Dr. Bariushaa Munkhtsog ( Mongolian Academy Sciences & Irbis Mongolia, Ulaanbaataar, Mongolia)
Dr. Som Ale (Snow Leopard Conservancy & University of Illinois at Chicago)
Activities Conducted: The grant from the MBZ Species Fund supported the following activities:
1) Training of in-country biologists (including field monitors recruited from local communities) for monitoring snow leopard populations through collection of scats for genotyping and individual identification in Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia.
2) Collected snow leopard scats for noninvasive genetics surveys (NSG) in Mongolia, Pakistan, and Nepal.
3) Genetic analysis of over 1,000 scats (species, gender, and individual identity, measures of genetic diversity).
4) Trained laboratory technicians at the Center for Molecular Dynamics-Nepal in noninvasive genetic techniques. Assisted in the development of the first wildlife genetics laboratory in Bhutan. Instructed the genetics portion of a wildlife monitoring workshop in Bhutan.
5) Prepared and submitted three manuscripts. The first comparing camera-trapping and noninvasive genetics methods for estimating snow leopard distribution and abundance (accepted by the Journal of Mammalogy). The second manuscript was on the prey use of snow leopards in Pakistan (accepted by the European Journal of Wildlife Research). The third a description of snow leopards and their conservation in the Everest area (published in Cat News, Autumn, 2010).
6) Prepared additional reports for submittal to Mongolia, Nepal, and Pakistan wildlife departments, as well as the Snow Leopard Network (SLN), http://www.snowleopardnetwork.org/sln/Homepage_En.php . Completing analysis of data to prepare additional manuscripts, including preliminary snow leopard habitat suitability and corridor linkage maps for Mongolia.
7) Completing laying the foundations for Phase II, including seeking additional necessary funding and related support for its implementation.
We refined non-invasive genetic methodologies for surveying snow leopards, along with executing field surveys in areas where information on the cat’s population size and structure has been largely lacking. In addition, we amassed representative samples from wide-spread regions of Central Asia in support of a range-wide survey to determine the extent of population variation.
We have increased our sampling efforts in Mongolia that will enable a better understanding of snow leopard population connectivity at the landscape level across large areas for the first time. We provided training to in-country biologists in field survey methods and molecular genetic techniques in several countries. These activities have laid the foundation for more in depth work planned in Phase II, where our primary objective is to identify important habitat and corridors for maintaining a metapopulation of snow leopards.
The following is a summary of specific activities undertaken along with the accomplishments made in each country supported under the generous grant from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.
The Conservancy’s Regional Conservation Director, Dr. Som Ale completed his initial survey of Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park and the Rolwaling valley in December 2009, followed by a second team visit in spring 2010. To date we have collected 17 presumed snow leopard scats from this area, which is located immediately west of Mt. Everest. Little snow leopard sign was detected in the Rolwaling Valley, and we attributed this rather precarious situation to continued poaching of predators and prey by outsiders. Details of Dr. Ale’s survey and the potential role the Mt. Everest population may play in replenishing Rolwaling’s fragile snow leopard population are described in an article published in the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s publication, Cat News.
In Nepal, the current government regulations do not permit export of scats to foreign facilities. Therefore, we developed a close collaboration with a genetic laboratory in Kathmandu, the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN, lead by Mr. Dibesh Karmachayra). In October, 2009 SLC signed an MOU with the CMDN and WWF- Nepal, aimed at enabling in-country analysis of scat samples from Nepal. This also fulfills one of our primary objectives for Phase 1, which is to aid in the development of in-country capacity, enabling local scientists to lead research efforts that target Nepal’s large cats, as well as other wildlife species.
In March 2010, Dr. Janecka traveled to Kathmandu to train CMDN’s laboratory technicians in non-invasive genetic methods, and to lay the groundwork for a collaboration to examine snow leopard populations at the landscape level in this important snow leopard range country. Working together with Dr. Janecka, CMDN was able to conduct species identification of the scats provided by WWF to test capacity of the laboratory. We are helping them develop procedures to successfully analyze scats for individual identification, so that eventually all aspects of genetic analysis can be conducted in-country. This will require the acquisition several costly laboratory instruments. Otherwise it will be necessary to do a portion of the analysis through cooperation arrangements or service laboratories in India or elsewhere abroad for complete analysis.
We collaborated with D. Karmachayra (CMDN) on a snow leopard genetic survey proposal, which was recently funded by the Snow Leopard Network, and we will work closely with this laboratory in the coming year to achieve the project’s goals. Hopefully, the information obtained will enable us to compare the landscape ecology of snow leopards inhabiting the Nepalese Himalaya with those of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
With the assistance of Dr. Shafqat Hussain (Anthropology Assistant Professor, Trinity College) and Mr. Ghulam Mohammad and Project Snow Leopard (PSL), now known as the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO), we collected 95 scats from 5 valleys in Baltistan (Basha, Hushey, Basho, Krabathang, Sadpara Lake). These have been genetically analyzed to species and individual, and we detected 18 individuals among 57 snow leopard scats. We worked with a Pakistani student who conducted a food habit study of snow leopards for his Master’s Degree. We verified which scats were left by snow leopard, compared with other sympatric carnivores (wolf, red fox), enabling one of the first diet studies of this felid incorporating genetics. This study generated a paper accepted by the European Journal of Wildlife Research.
As a result of the current political and logistical situation in Pakistan we have not been able to carry-out systematic surveys as originally proposed. However, through the analysis of scats collected by our in-country partner BWCDO, we were able to validate snow leopard presence in several key areas. More significantly, we developed a close relationship with a Pakistani field biologist who conducted the food habits study mentioned above. Through these and other collaborators, we hope this coming year to expand the field surveys to the upper Hunza and Gojal areas, along the periphery of the Khunjerab National Park, Pakistan’s premiere snow leopard and Marco Polo sheep protected area. We will attempt to collect 100-300 scats that would allow us to compare snow leopard abundance among the various sites. In addition, we will be able to compare the genetic variation in Pakistan to samples that we collected in Tajikistan, Mongolia, Ladakh (India), and Nepal, thus providing important information on the landscape connectivity in part of the snow leopard’s range.
Noninvasive Surveys and Baseline Abundance Estimates
We focused most of our noninvasive surveys in Mongolia (see Figure 1b) because of the ease of access and logistical reasons. We have collected a total of 977 scat samples with 274 being genetically confirmed as snow leopard, under our partnership with Dr. B. Munkhtsog of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Irbis Mongolia NGO (Table 1). The team collected samples from the western portion of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert mountain ranges. Field surveys were undertaken in February through April of 2009. In addition, our collaborators have collected samples from the Russian side of Tsagaan study site in February-April 2010. R. Jackson and B. Munkhtsog collected additional scats in August of 2010. Thus, we believe we have among the largest samples of snow leopard populations available. The table below lists the locations where, our collaborators and us have collected snow leopard scats while undertaking the first range wide population assessment of this rare and elusive species using non-invasive fecal sampling. We completed individual and sex identification for samples collected from Tsagaan in the far west along the Russian (Altay Republic) border, and from the Three Beauties National Park, Tost Uul, Noyon Uul, Arts Bogd, and Baga Bogd massifs located in the Gobi desert.
One of the critical aspects of applying noninvasive genetics techniques to snow leopards is determining whether the method yields biologically meaningful abundance estimates. To achieve this end, we compared the results of noninvasive genetic survey in Tost and Noyon Uul with a camera-trapping survey we did in the same area. We found that the noninvasive genetic survey (NGS) was much more efficient and notably less costly: within the same site this technique detected the majority of the cats within 2 days versus 11 or more days for camera trapping. We noted that the NGS technique provided much higher density estimates, namely about 5 snow leopards/100km2 compared to 2/100 km2. However, part of this difference could be the presence of three cubs which were detected by camera-trapping, but excluded from subsequent population estimate, for camera-trapping seeks to estimates adult density only. In addition, as scats are clumped along transects at scrape sites, the distribution of the sampling sites yields a lower effective area than cameras, which are more widely spaced out. This in turn inflates densities derived from the NGS technique. Our conclusions are as follows: (1) One cannot directly compare camera-trapping and NGS density because each has its own unique sampling bias; and (2) in order to make the NGS more biological meaningful it is important to modify the survey design to include shorter transects which should be spaced out more evenly through the landscape (i.e., to avoid “clumping” of sampling points). We have submitted a manuscript describing these methodologies and results to the Journal of Mammalogy which has been accepted for publication in 2011.
The preliminary surveys we have done provided important information for developing consistent sampling design across regions that will yield comparable distribution and abundance estimates. We have written a NGS technique manual that we have shared with other snow leopard researchers in Russia, Bhutan, Nepal, and US. Similarly, our camera-trapping manual has been used in Russia, China, and Mongolia, and formed the basis for a training workshop targeting the Arabian leopard conducted by Dr. Rodney Jackson in Saudi Arabia in October-November 2010.
Using these modified methods, we completed additional surveys in 2010. We have started to amass information that is offering the first quantitative look at the landscape level of snow leopard abundance across Mongolia. Because not every location will be the subject of an intensive NGS study, nor will yield density estimates, it is important to also develop a metric correlated with snow leopard abundance, so that sites can be compared based on simple indexes, such as the number of scrapes or scats per kilometer of transect. We started to use the number of individual snow leopards detected/km of transect. Based on this metric, the greatest abundance of snow leopards was found in Tsagaan, followed by Noyon Uul and Tost Uul (Table 2). Snow leopards appear less abundant in Three Beauties (Gurvansaikhan) National Park, Arts Bogd, and Baga Bogd (where the Conservancy fitted a satellite collar to a male snow leopard in 2008; see SLC’s website for details: http://www.snowleopardconservancy.org/togoldor.htm ). We propose that the number of snow leopards/km will be a viable way of identifying the most important snow leopard habitat and corridors. The NGS surveys can also provide information on the distribution of snow leopards in the landscape as shown in Figure 2.
Landscape Connectivity and Genetic Diversity
Another goal involves estimating genetic diversity in each of these regions, along with gathering information on dispersal, levels of gene flow, and population structure -- especially within Mongolia where snow leopard habitat is more highly fragmented. We have conducted DNA extractions on nearly all scat samples collected to date (1,457 of 1,500 samples), of which 496 were confirmed to belong to snow leopard. Due to natural degradation of biological material, it is not possible to extract genetic products from all scats, while many scat samples collected were deposited by other carnivores, such as red fox, wolf, and lynx. In Mongolia, for example, as much as 60% of scats that professionals considered belonging to snow leopard were in fact left by red fox! This high percentage of misidentification clearly indicates that all food habit studies drawing prey remains in scats will need to be supported by genetic confirmation as to which species actually left each scat sample.
We developed an additional 38 microsatellite markers for population structure nalysis and in collaboration with other institutions are now comparing genetic variation among the various study areas, especially within Mongolia. Our aim, in each of the areas surveyed, is to identify which mountain ranges serve as metapopulation “sources,” or areas producing a surplus of snow leopards to supplement, or even repopulate, depleted habitat patches through emigration. Conservation efforts would be best focused in these key areas, in sharp contrast to those habitat patches known as “sinks,” where mortality exceeds rates of birth and/or immigration, thus making conservation investments in those area impractical. For example, in the Gobi Desert we have now sampled six mountain ranges, namely Tost Uul, Noyon Uul, Arts Bogd, Baga Bogd, Eastern & Western Beauty within Gurvansaikhan (Three Beauties) National Park, and three mountain ranges in western Mongolia, Tsagaan, Turgen, and Altan Khokii (Figure 1). With our collaborators including Chinese Academy of Forestry (Drs Yuguang Zhang and Diqiang Li) we have obtained additional scats from other areas of Central Asia, (Figure 3). By comparing the genetic diversity in these sites, we can infer the level of connectivity (Figure 4). One of the ways this can be done is by estimating the Fst value, which can be considered an index of connectivity. When it is 0 it means there is free movement between areas (in essence one population encompasses all areas), when it is 1 it means that there is complete isolation. Typically, if Fst is above 0.05 it suggests some level of isolation. When we compared Mongolia snow leopards to China, we found that the Fst value between western Mongolia and Gobi lower than between Gobi and northern Qinghai. This suggests that snow leopards in that region disperse east-to-west more often than north-south. We are now examining this in more detail, so that we can estimate the rates of dispersal, what corridors they are using, and if there are any isolated populations in Mongolia.
Another critical output of these genetic surveys involves identifying areas and candidate settlements for pilot, community-driven stewardship initiatives. Our 2009 survey took place in the Three Beauties National Park where we worked closely with park staff and provided the opportunity for two park rangers to participate in the field survey. Our hope is that these rangers, and perhaps also specially trained villagers, will collect scats at more regular intervals, providing these to Dr. B. Munkhtsog of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Dr. Janecka for analysis. The Three Beauties has been identified as a possible long-term study site where we can examine various sampling strategies and environmental factors effecting scat surveys. Such information would enable us to improve the design of non-invasive surveys so that they yield biologically reasonable population estimates.
We are in the process of launching a country-wide evaluation of potential snow leopard habitat using GIS tools, and drawing upon existing databases (including the 30 m DEM for Mongolia, landcover and livestock-human population density layers). Our goal is to identify areas with the most suitable habitat (core habitats) and determine which areas are potentially most valuable for linking sites at a landscape level.
In conclusion, we have made a good start, particularly in Mongolia, in terms of establishing baseline data and assembling information important for long-term monitoring of different snow leopard populations. Such efforts will help program managers determine whether conservation actions are effective, specifically, if they are leading to increases in, or at least stabilization, of this rare large cat. To date, we have established baseline abundance information for Tost Uul, Noyon Uul, Arts Bogd, Baga Bogd, the Three Beauties National Park, and the Tsagaan study sites in Mongolia, and other sites in northern Pakistan. Our goal for 2010, and the following years, is to expand surveys in Nepal and Pakistan.
Presentations and Publications: Dr. Janecka presented preliminary results of this project at the Snow Leopard Genomics Workshop which was held in San Diego in January 2010. Dr. Rodney Jackson also presented SLC’s community-based approaches to snow leopard conservation at this workshop.
Dr. Janecka gave two seminars on non-invasive genetic surveys of snow leopards, one to the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology and the other to the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal in Kathmandu in March. He was also interviewed for a radio show in Nepal by Dibesh Karmacharya (Keeps 98.3, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuVJ0TRD-Lc), for a program focusing on wildlife conservation issues in Nepal, expected to air in April. At these meetings, Jan discussed genetic advances and applications to wildlife conservation and research.
In March 2010, we submitted a manuscript to the Journal of Mammalogy examining the use of noninvasive surveys for snow leopards titled “Comparison of noninvasive genetic and camera-trapping techniques for surveying snow leopards”. This pioneering project represents the first detailed study that compares the efficacy of genetic surveys with remote camera-trapping for the snow leopard.
As mentioned above, Dr. Som Ale submitted a manuscript to CAT News on the Mt. Everest project. Rodney Jackson’s manuscript on snow leopards in Mongolia appeared in the fall 2010 ArcNews, the leading GIS professional news which reaches a professional audience of over 500,000 worldwide. He also wrote a chapter for a book on snow leopards targeting the general public and exploring snow leopards more from a spiritual perspective. In October 2009, Rodney was inducted as an Honorary Fellow to the California Academy of Sciences, and in March 2010 he was one of six finalists for the 2010 Indianapolis Prize for the second time.
In May 2010, Dr. Jan Janecka was an invited instructor for “Workshop on Wildlife Research Techniques in Rugged Mountainous Environments in Asia” hosted by Ugyen Wangchuk Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE), Department of Forests, Ministry of Agriculture, Royal Government of Bhutan and Dr. Scott Mills, University of Montana. His focus was on the application of genetics towards monitoring wild species and also was an important member of a team that developed the first wildlife genetics laboratory in Bhutan that is housed at UWICE. Finally, he is the coordinating author for the chapter “Wildlife Genetics in Rugged Landscapes: Methods Applications and Examples” that will be part of a book that will serve as a practical manual titled “Wildlife Research Techniques in Rugged Mountainous Landscapes”. This work is an outcome of the Bhutan workshop and is specifically targeted towards introducing in-country biologists and conservationists in the mountainous regions of Central Asia to the science behind modern monitoring methods.
Note: For the accompanying Tables & Figures, see attached file. For more information on SLC programs and activities visit: http://www.SnowLeopardConservancy.org
Project 0925696 location - Mongolia, Asia