2 May 2022
Compiled by Samundra Subba, WWF-Nepal Research Officer, snow leopard programme.
Enjoy an exclusive report on Nepal’s latest exciting collaring expedition.
Here in Nepal, local people call snow leopards the ‘ghosts of the mountain’ because they’re so very rarely seen. Using camera traps and conducting field surveys gives us important insights into the mysterious world of these incredible big cats. But to tackle threats such as habitat loss and the changing climate, we need to know more about their movements and behaviour.
That’s why we support crucial expeditions led by Nepal’s government to fit individual snow leopards with satellite tracking collars.
So far, we’ve helped track eight magnificent snow leopards in Nepal, and signals from their collars have shown how far they travel, the size of their home ranges and their feeding patterns, as well as highlighting potential conflict hotspots. This was my sixth expedition, and after months of careful planning with the government, local snow leopard conservation committees (SLCCs) and other conservation partners, I couldn’t wait to get started.
Our 30-strong team assembled in the Dolpa area of the Shey Phoksundo National Park, where we made our final preparations. We all took stringent COVID safety precautions throughout the entire trip, including sleeping in separate tents and maintaining a safe distance from each other. Equipment packed and everyone ready, we began our long horse ride to the collaring site in Nisal, a remote village in the park’s northernmost reaches. As we left the lush foothill forests behind and climbed higher into the mountains, I marvelled at how snow leopards have adapted to live in such an extreme and challenging landscape, which to me seems like another planet.
At Nisal, we set up camp and checked our equipment. First, we had to install a new communications tower we were testing, which would automatically monitor the humane traps we use and send us signals if any were triggered. This involved a four-hour trek uphill. At such a high altitude, we felt like all the oxygen had been drained from our lungs.
Tower installed, we began setting up the traps across a 50 km2 area of snow leopard habitat. The SLCCs had previously found camera trap images of six adult snow leopards in the area, including a female with two cubs, so we had high hopes of collaring at least one of them.
As we crossed rivers and scrambled up and down the steep slopes, we kept our eyes (and noses) peeled for telltale snow leopard signs such as pugmarks (footprints), hairs stuck to the sides of stones and urine spray marks. Snow leopards spray urine to mark their territories, and finding it is ridiculously exciting, despite the strong smell!
It took three arduous days to set up the traps, and then we waited, not knowing how long our mission would take. Thankfully, an alarm triggered at 6 am the next morning, and some of our team members headed off to check it. Forty-five minutes later, they called us on the walkie-talkie with some brilliant news. A snow leopard had been captured! After all our hard work, this was an amazing moment and everyone cheered.
We hurried off to help the team and were thrilled to see the magnificent snow leopard – a healthy male of around seven years old.
Our vet carefully sedated and examined the snow leopard before fitting the tracking collar and safely bringing him round. We watched from a distance as he vanished into the landscape, his beautiful greyish-white coat blending seamlessly with the rocky surroundings.
As well as helping to identify and monitor the threats snow leopards face, collaring expeditions give us the chance to work with local people who have long coexisted with wildlife. By combining scientific research with their incredible knowledge of the terrain and wildlife tracking skills, we can co-create ways to help people and snow leopards continue living alongside each other as their landscape changes.
Did you know?
The whole collaring process takes just 50 minutes, and the humane traps we use do not harm the snow leopards.