UD graduate student studies snow leopard population in Tajikistan

December 19, 2012 under CANR News

snow leopard in TajikistanAs he lay in a bathtub, seeking shelter from the barrage of mortar attacks just outside his building, Shannon Kachel realized that his summer of studying snow leopards, ibex and Marco Polo sheep in the desolate mountains ranges of Asia was over.

Spending the season in the Pamir Mountains region of Tajikistan to study wild ungulate -– or hooved mammals — and snow leopards to determine all the variables surrounding the species and possibly get an idea about their population sizes, Kachel, a University of Delaware graduate student working with Kyle McCarthy in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, went into the city of Khorog to resupply for the final month of research and found himself caught in the middle of a fight between the Tajikistan central government forces and what the government deemed was an illegally armed group.

Kachel said that he wanted to stay and continue with his research but he knew that he had to leave.

“I would have stayed because my read of the situation was that it was going to get better,” said Kachel. “But I don’t know that I would have gotten anything done.”

Luckily for Kachel, he had already set up enough cameras in the region – cameras designed to record the movement of the various animals — that he was confident he had enough material for his study.

Researching two distinct areas of the Pamirs, Kachel placed one set of cameras in a location where the government allows trophy hunting of wild ungulates while informally managing the population for sustainability.

He also set up cameras in a section where it is illegal to hunt the animals and where there is no regulation of the species, but where poaching and overgrazing still threaten the wildlife.

“What I’m doing is comparing those two sites, one for the availability of the ungulate prey, but then the snow leopard populations, as well,” said Kachel.

While hunting and poaching is a concern, with the snow leopard population number dropping precipitously over recent decades, Kachel stressed that his research is looking more at the impact pastoral communities have on the species.

“A lot of that population loss results from the typical poaching pressures that we think of from people going out and killing big cats but a bigger component is competition with pastoral people,” said Kachel.

He explained that as external government food subsidies dried up with the fall of the Soviet Union, it left an artificially high human population in the area based on what the environment could support. In this high and desolate region of the world, the people turned to livestock production and the killing of wild ungulates in order to sustain themselves.

snow leopard“The component that I’m addressing is more from the ecological perspective,” said Kachel. “The other side of having all these livestock on the landscape is that it reduces the amount of natural prey that’s available for snow leopards and it gets rid of all the forage available for, specifically in my study area, the ibex and the Marco Polo sheep.”

Thanks to funding from Panthera, a global wild cat conservation group, and help from the Tajik Academy of Sciences, Kachel spent June and July traversing the rugged terrain and eventually getting close to 80 cameras set up in an area about half the size of the state of Delaware. “We were hiking around a lot,” said Kachel. “Huffing and puffing in that high mountain air.”

He explained that the cameras “work based on heat and motion. So an animal that’s a different temperature from the background walks by and the camera starts shooting pictures.” Kachel said that since they used two different types of cameras for the study, they put out lures with the cameras to draw in the animals.

“Because the cameras function differently, we needed to make sure that any animal passing by was present long enough to get clear images,” said Kachel. “So we used the lure to draw them in and hold their attention. We need clear images so we can identify the individual cats.”

Kachel explained that he did this because “snow leopards are individually identifiable based on their spots, so we can use our observations of when, where, and how frequently individuals are caught by the cameras to build better population estimates that tell us more than a simple minimum count.”

The cameras, which were retrieved by a Tajik man once the violence ended, have already caught pictures of two snow leopard cubs, and were highlighted by Reuters and inBusiness Insider.

Kachel said that he is encouraged with the results he has gotten back so far.

“As far as getting these pictures is concerned, in some ways I’m actually really optimistic about how many pictures we’ve gotten back in terms of snow leopard outlook and the prognosis for the species,” said Kachel. “The global population estimate ranges from 3,500-7,000 animals and that’s a huge range. It could be anywhere in there, so for at least the trophy hunting site, to get the number of images that we’ve gotten back is encouraging to me.”

Kachel, who is 28, said that if these preliminary results are borne out, it would give conservationists another tool to protect snow leopards and their prey throughout their range.

Article by Adam Thomas

Images courtesy of Panthera and Shannon Kachel

To watch a video of the snow leopards, check out the article on UDaily.