New photographs reveal secrets of rare Himalayan snow leopard

Rare images of the Himalayan snow leopard in its natural habitat are expected to help improve the survival chances of the world’s elusive and little-known fifth-largest big cat. A research expedition backed by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) used remote camera technology to record some of the first-ever photos of this endangered animal’s behaviour in the wild.

The innovative experiment, high in the Indian Trans-Himalaya, is encouraging for snow leopard conservation and demonstrates that such techniques can be used to estimate the size of the wild population. Current estimates are that there are no more than 7,000 cats in the 2.3 million square kilometre range, and it is thought this number is decreasing rapidly.

Local herdsmen, who can face financial ruin if night-corralled livestock are killed by snow leopards, often kill the snow leopards in acts of retaliation. The cats are also hunted for their luxurious coat, and their bones are being increasingly used as substitutes for tiger bones in Chinese medicine. The animals have a near mythical status in parts of the Himalaya, comparable even with the yeti!

The new research technique can be used to assess the impact of different conservation initiatives and could be used to plan parallel conservation measures elsewhere in its central Asian range, where only 6 percent of snow leopards are believed to be within protected areas. Further research will investigate if it is possible to use the density of snow leopard signs (scrapes, pugmarks, scats, scent sprays) to detect changes in the size of snow leopard populations.

Ashley Spearing, who conducted the research with funds made available from by Michael Palin’s Gumby Corporation and in association with the International Snow Leopard Trust, commented: “It was the best attempt to photograph them in this way to date. It’s also very encouraging that we now have a really powerful tool to study them”. Ashley is now seeking funding to further his research.

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