Using GPS radio collars, an international team of scientists has been tracking snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert since 2008. In May, two of the study’s females began to restrict their daily movements to smaller and smaller areas, which the team interpreted as a signal that both were preparing to give birth. Traveling through steep and rocky mountain outcroppings, the team followed VHF signals transmitted by the collars and finally located the dens on 21 June.
Only six kilometers apart, both dens were high up in steep canyons. The first den was in a big cave with a man-made rock wall blocking most of the entrance. ‘As we stood outside the den we could hear the cub and smell the cats but not see anything inside the den,’ noted researcher Orjan Johansson of Sweden. He and his colleagues, Sumbee Tomorsukh of Mongolia, Mattia Colombo of Italy, and Carol Esson of Australia, had to think fast and decided to tape a camera to their VHF antenna. Extending the camera over the wall they were able to film the inside of the cave. Their remarkable footage shows a female snow leopard lying tucked against the wall staring at the entrance with a paw over her tiny cub.
‘This is incredible,’ says Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust. ‘Snow leopards are so rare and elusive that people often talk about them as ‘ghosts’ of the mountains. This is the first documented visit of a den site with cubs and thanks to this video we can share it with the world.’ The Snow Leopard Trust has since posted the video on its YouTube channel.
At the second den, the team found two male cubs in a narrow crack in a cliff wall. Confirming that their mother was out on a kill, the scientists were able to enter, photograph the cubs and take hair samples that will allow them to establish the cubs’ genetic identification and confirm sex. They also took weights and measurements and implanted PIT tags (tiny tracking microchips similar to those used by pet owners). Both cubs had full stomachs and appeared to be in good condition.
The team handled the cubs with care and took their measurements as quickly as possible. “This was an unprecedented opportunity,’ says Rutherford, ‘We wanted to be as careful as possible and only take the most pressing data.’ The days following the den visits the team listened with VHF from a distance to make sure that the females returned. Their constant monitoring has confirmed that both females are still with their cubs. The research teams will not be visiting the cubs or the den sites again in order to limit disturbance to the den areas and the cubs themselves.
Aside from the sheer awe factor of catching the first-ever glimpse of a mother and cub inside a den, these findings are incredibly important for snow leopard conservation.
As few as 4,000 snow leopards may be left in the wild and the Snow Leopard Trust is working hard to improve protection for the cats. However, due to their elusive nature, very little is known about snow leopards in the wild. Birth rates, sex ratios, cub sizes, litter sizes and cub survival rates have never been documented but are critical to understanding—and planning for—the survival of the species. Follow-up assessment of cub survival will enable the Snow Leopard Trust to clarify the potential for snow leopard populations to grow and recover from declines.<>