UPDATE on November 18, 2001: Three snow leopards have been spotted in the lower areas of Mustang district in western Nepal, according to the Kathmandu Post – not by one of the children, but by an expert.
“I saw a small number of Himalayan Blue sheep grazing around the grassland near Taprang (link is to a time-lapse video) in Jarkot area… I waited for a while and moved my eyes around, and suddenly I saw a snow leopard coming towards the pasture from the stream nearby,” said Bikram Shrestha, field biologist and a member of the census team. “I was elated and took numerous pictures of the animal.”
Here is one of his pics:
by Frankie Taggart
Conservationists in Nepal have enlisted an army of school children to record the movements of the mysterious snow leopard, one of the most elusive predators in the world, a scientist said Tuesday.
Experts believe just 500 adults survive in the Himalayan nation, and few can claim ever to have seen the secretive, solitary “mountain ghost”, which lives 5,000 to 6,000 metres (16,500 to 20,000 ft) above sea level.
“Snow leopards are inherently rare, and also elusive in the sense that they are active during dusk and dawn, so few people, including biologists, have seen a snow leopard to date,” said Som Ale of the US-based Snow Leopard Conservancy.
The group has enlisted children from schools in the leopard’s habitat in Mustang, in Nepal’s mountainous northern frontier, who will work in pairs to instal and monitor digital cameras to count the endangered species.
The census, due to be carried out over two months in winter, will give scientists a more accurate idea of numbers in Nepal than more primitive techniques, including recording tracks and collecting droppings.
Although the Snow Leopard Conservancy used camera traps on a study in India six years ago, the group says this is the first survey of a large predator anywhere in the world by local communities who are not paid conservation experts.
“In parts of Africa, lions may be monitored by local people but they are well paid professional guides,” Ale told AFP.
Remote camera trapping, which Som describes as “an interesting but taxing venture”, is increasingly seen as the best way to get an accurate picture of the big cat’s population — but it is by no means a guaranteed technique.
“To be successful, one must place cameras on rugged terrain and trails snow leopards frequent. Our cameras in Mustang may or may not catch images of snow leopards which may depend on so many other factors besides the location — for instance, movement of prey, snowfall and all that,” Som said.
The pupils will be trained to set up digital cameras that take infra-red images and operate in sub-zero temperatures to areas where snow leopards would be expected to visit, automatically taking images of any warm-bodied animal that happens to pass by.
Each snow leopard has its own unique pattern and researchers match the photographed animal’s fur against pictures taken earlier in the survey or from previous surveys.
“Capture-mark-recapture” algorithms and computers are used to estimate the number of snow leopards present within the area surveyed.
The snow leopard is protected in Nepal by an act of parliament dating back to the 1970s which provides for penalties of up to 100,000 rupees ($1,300) and up to 15 years in jail for poachers and traders of its pelt and bones.
There are an estimated 4,500 to 7,000 of the big cats left in the wild. But that population is spread across 12 countries and nearly 775,000 square miles.
This habitat includes some of the most remote regions of the world, from Afghanistan, across the Himalayas, to Lake Baikal in south central Russia.
The figure is only a “best guess” based largely upon tracks, droppings and crude computer-generated habitat models.
“Clearly, if we are to ensure a future for this charismatic species, we need to know far more about its distribution and population trend in the 12 countries where snow leopards range,” Snow Leopard Conservancy says on its website.
“That requires monitoring their populations in representative areas and habitats to determine their current and future status. Are we dealing with the worst-case scenario of widespread, declining numbers, or are populations stable and even possibly increasing in some places?”
Ale himself is one of the few people in the world lucky enough to have come face to face with the animal.
The biologist photographed a snow leopard in 2004 on the southern slopes of Mount Everest, the first time it had been spotted there for more than 40 years, by observing the behaviour of its prey, a wild goat called the Himalayan tahr.
“If one knows where to look, one can sight snow leopard. In Everest, I saw snow leopard six times during my PhD study — all because my PhD work was to find out suitable techniques to study the elusive predator,” he said.