Snow Leopards Return to the Top of the World

Snow leopards are losing ground in many parts of their range across the mountains of Central Asia, such as in China, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan. It was therefore heartening news when Som Ale, a doctoral candidate at University of Illinois at Chicago and former Earthwatch principal investigator, photographed the rare cats on the southern slopes of Mount Everest.

Ale photographed two snow leopards, using a Nikon D-70 SLR camera with a 70-300 mm (f/4.5 G) zoom, and saw tracks of two more, the first confirmed sightings of the elusive cats on the Nepal side of Mount Everest since the 1960s. The young biologist, who is originally from Nepal, was investigating whether the national park established here in 1976 to protect habitat for snow leopards is having the desired effect. Apparently it is.

“Snow leopard sightings are very, very rare,” said Ale, former principal investigator of Earthwatch’s Snow Leopards of Nepal project in the early 2000s. “We can easily count them, starting from George Schaller himself, and then Joe Fox (Ale’s former adviser at the University of Tromso, Norway, and former principal investigator of Earthwatch’s snow leopard project in Ladakh, India), and so on.”

Ale has spent the last 15 years looking for snow leopards in the wild expanses of Nepal, without sighting one until now. He managed to photograph these individuals by rising early, at 4:30 am, and observing the behavior of their principal prey in the region, a wild goat called the Himalayan tahr. When Ale heard tahr repeatedly whistling and found them exhibiting “vigilant behavior,” with their heads raised and ears upright, he suspected that a snow leopard was near. One of the main focuses of Ale’s Ph.D. work under the supervision of Dr. Joel Brown (University of Illinois), evolutionary biologist, is to use prey behaviors to make inferences about the population and their community.

From 1999 to 2001, Earthwatch volunteers on Snow Leopards of Nepal helped Ale and Mahesh Gurung (now at Trueman College, Chicago) record the vigilant behavior and habitat use of blue sheep, or bharal, in the Annapurna Conservation Area. Their research was part of an effort to assess the use of this wilderness habitat by snow leopards.

Snow leopards are thinly scattered over some of the remotest ranges in the world, from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, across the Himalayas, to the Sayan Mountains near Lake Baikal. A creature of borderlands and hinterlands, snow leopards are distributed across 12 countries and 2 million square kilometers, making their populations difficult to study. Snow leopards are nowhere considered common, and there are an estimated 4,500 to 7,000 left in the wild. Despite being protected in parts of their range, they are still hunted for their pelts, for body parts used in traditional medicine, and to protect livestock.

“It’s good that snow leopards are dispersing and expanding their range on the top of the world, in contrast to other places where they are disappearing,” said Ale. His sightings on the south slope of Everest are solid evidence that this elusive species can repopulate suitable habitat, so efforts to stem their decline are not in vain.

In addition to Earthwatch, Ale has received support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, International Snow Leopard Trust, WWF-Nepal, Ev-K2-CNR, and Provost’s Award.

From Earthwatch

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