Making Strides in Genetics

Dec 5, 2013 11:45 pm

Jan in Mongolia

   Jan (center) in field with G. Naranbaatar (l) and B.Munkhtsog (r)  

Dr. Jan Janečka, currently at Texas A&M University, but soon moving to Duquesne University, is the Conservancy’s partner in genetic studies on snow leopards. Jan reports that his paper, co-authored with Rodney Jackson, Bariushaa Munkhtsog, and William J. Murphy, is in press for publication in the journal Conservation Genetics Resources.

Once again, the Snow Leopard Conservancy and its partners are innovators in the science of snow leopard conservation.

The paper’s title might be goobledy-gook to us laypeople:  “Characterization of 9 microsatellites and primers in snow leopards and a species-specific PCR assay for identifying noninvasive samples”.  But the results of Jan’s work are significant.  He describes new molecular tools and methods for more efficiently and cost-effectively distinguishing snow leopard scats from other species.  In the field we have learned that even though collecting scat seems a relatively simple non-invasive method of obtaining genetic material from these endangered cats, the confusion with scats from other animals such as foxes can be almost 50%.  This error rate is similar whether an experienced wildlife biologist or a community-based local monitor is doing the collecting.  Accurate and affordable identification of the scats is critical.

Jan’s paper also describes lab methods for characterization of microsatellites, which are used as molecular markers for determining snow leopard kinship, population connectivity, and population trends, and development of these markers specifically for snow leopard scat analysis.  Even long-term, expensive, labor-intensive radio-tracking studies cannot yield the depth of information that non-invasive genetics can provide.

Those of you who have read Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World, edited by Don Hunter and available in our on-line store, will know that Jan is not just a lab geneticist.  His fieldwork and trainings in the snow leopard range countries have informed his popular writing, including his heartfelt account, “Tracks of My Soul,” in Don’s book.

Jan and his family will soon be moving to Pennsylvania, where he will head up a new lab at Duquesne University, and where he looks forward to advancing the work of snow leopard conservation through genetics.  He also very much looks forward to one day introducing his young son to the habitat of this beautiful wild cat for whom he has devoted so many indoor hours.

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Snow Leopard Cub in Mongolia

Nov 25, 2013 9:56 pm


cub on ger

On November 19 a young snow leopard cub made his way to the roof of a ger (Mongolian nomadic tent) for a bite to eat and a nap, thus surprising herder D. Ganbat and his family inside.  The family had placed a bag of meat on the roof and the hungry cub decided it was a perfect meal.  The heat rising up from within the ger offered warmth for the cub to fall asleep in after his meal.  The family used a cell phone to call the association of local herders for assistance.  A team led by the governor of the association arrived at the Ganbat family’s ger and after several attempts at coaxing the cub down, they were able to safely capture him.  The cub was then transported to the base of the mountains just a few kilometers and safely released.

cub on roof of tent

According to Snow Leopard Conservancy’s partner in Mongolia, Dr. B. Munkhtsog, the cub was in good health upon being found.  Assuming his mother is okay, it is likely that he will be reunited with her.

cub on tent

Since the mid-1990s much work has been done by WWF Mongolia, Snow Leopard Conservancy, and Institute of Biology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences to support the conservation of snow leopards.

In the past, the little cub would likely have been killed, because the herders saw the cats as a threat.  This incident indicates herder attitudes are changing, that they can see snow leopards as a viable part of the community, and that this little cub should have the chance to live a full life.

**Images taken with cell phones by D. Ganbat and family

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Bringing Indigenous Cultural Practitioners (ICPs) into the Planning For Global Snow Leopard Survival

Oct 31, 2013 10:40 pm


The bucolic Chong Kemin Valley lies about two hours drive from the metropolis of Bishkek. It’s the kind of meeting place “in nature” the Shamans and Sacred Site Guardians asked for, when I met them last year in Korea, at the World Conservation Congress.

High peaks of the northern Tien Shan range rise above the valley, marking the Chong Kemin National Park, founded in 1977. Snow leopards live there, and are seen in the valley occasionally in winter.

The Shamans were right; the work of saving snow leopards goes better in a beautiful place, especially one where the cats might be roaming the slopes high above.

We called this workshop for mid-September, as a side meeting of the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Survival Forum. The Forum was called by the Krygyz government with the intent that it would happen concurrently with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization economic summit. The snow leopard range countries are Organization members, and their Heads of State would be attending, so it seemed like a good and logical opportunity to have a high level effort to set range-wide policies for snow leopard conservation.

We were a group of twenty-one, including Indigenous Cultural Practitioners (ICPs) and their interpreters living and working in snow leopard habitat in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and the Buryat and Altai Republics of Russia. We use the term ICP to include Shamans, Healers, and Sacred Site Guardians.

Since 2008, the Snow Leopard Conservancy has been working with the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network (WISN) towards a meaningful merger of Western and Indigen-ous Science, for the protection of sacred species. WISN was our partner in facilitating this workshop, with a generous grant from The Christensen Fund, and supplemental funding from the Indigenous Fund of the Tides Foundation.

The goal was to create a pathway for ICPs and their communities throughout the snow leopard’s range to participate directly in the implementation of the Global Snow Leopard Protection Plan. Participants gave presentations on their experience of and connection to snow leopards. Here is a taste of what they had to say:

Kurbon Alamshev, from the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, is not an ICP; he is a long-time reporter for BBC who has recently become a champion of nature conservation. There is a significant dearth of books and articles in Tajikistan about conservation, and he wants to help spread the word about the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum and the ICP workshop.

Mairamkul Asanaliev, Kyrgyz artist and scholar of traditional hunting, urged education in this modern society where trophy hunting has become a hobby of the rich done from helicopters with high-powered rifles.

E. Buyanbadrakh, Shaman and Head of the Association for Protection of the Altai Cultural Heritage, echoed other ICPs in telling us that snow leopards were never referred to by name, but rather by a euphemism such as “the one with the beautiful coat.” To name snow leopard is to give it power to attack livestock. He does Shamanic ceremonies in many areas but feels most at home in snow leopard habitat. He believes Mongolian snow leopards can repopulate China and Siberia, where the cats have been heavily hunted.

Slava Cheltuev, Shaman from the Altai Republic, said that snow leopard is a predator but knows “his” herds like a shepherd. He gave us a beautiful natural history of snow leopards from the indigenous perspective, and from his experience as a member of the Snow Leopard Clan and hereditary guardian of Irbis Tuu, the Snow Leopard Mountain. Those who hunt the snow leopard don’t get rich; more likely they get ill.

Norbu Lama is both Buddhist Lama and chairperson of the Association of Soyot Peoples. Norbu explained that the Sayan Mountains are sacred to the Soyots, and are also home to snow leopard, their main totem animal. The Soyots do ceremonies to honor the mountains. It was in these mountains where Chingyz Khan received his calling to unite the people.  The power and energy of the land is still there, and we can use the landscape to awaken passion for preservation. The fate of many people is connected to the cultural landscape; understanding the land gives us the power to preserve it.

Danil Mamyev,Guardian/Director of Uch Enmek National Park in the Altai Republic, has a degree in geology. He talked of how he came to realize that his scientific education threatened to override his indigenous education. He is an eloquent spokesperson for the integration of the two ways of knowing. Totemism, he said said, isn’t created by peopleit exists. The ability to get knowledge from nature is a very big open book. There are places where people can get the knowledge without western education. Danil established the School of Spiritual Ecology-Tingri to preserve and promote the historical and cultural legacy and local traditions of the Altayan people.

Zhaparkul Raiymkulov, Guardian of Arashan Ata Sacred Site in western Kyrgyzstan, opened our workshop with a ceremonial fire and invocation for success. Later, in his presentation, he said that in times past snow leopard purified humans’ environment and that is why it was forbidden to hunt, kill, or violate them in any way. He agreed with Mairamkul that education is needed, that modern society has lost its connection with nature. The ICPs and the Global Forum organizers have the same goals, but different viewpoints.

Four of our group were young (30-something) Kyrgyz professionals who contributed greatly to the success of the workshop. Each came to us at the end of our week together to thank us, quite emotionally, for involving them in the workshop. They hadn’t heard of anything like this kind of gathering happening before. More than one said it was a life-changing experience; they have a new appreciation for their own deep culture. For Rodney and me, this was the best “unintended consequence” of having had the privilege of facilitating this workshop!

The intended consequence was a Statement to the Global Forum, developed by the ICPs during a long brainstorming session at the end of the workshop.

It reads:

We, the indigenous cultural practitioners of the snow leopard range countries, welcome  global efforts for the conservation of snow leopards and express our readiness to collaborate in the development and implementation of the comprehensive long-term Global Snow Leopard Conservation Program to meet goals of 2020 using our traditional knowledge.

            The Bishkek Declaration expressed strong concern about the increasing threats to our sacred animal that is “an irreplaceable symbol of our nation’s natural and cultural heritage and an indicator of the health and sustainability of mountain ecosystems” and called for “the enhancement of the role of local communities in snow leopard conservation efforts”. Representing indigenous and local communities of our respective countries we emphasize close ties between indigenous communities and communities of our totem animals. For us the state of the snow leopard is an indicator of the state of the spiritual and socio-cultural wellbeing of our communities today and of our future generations tomorrow. Indissoluble, enduring connection and mutual dependence of the fate of our Peoples from the fate of their totem animals is an indisputable truth for us. We understand that the risks and threats for the sacred snow leopard are augmented by the loss of traditional understanding and respect for the value of totem animals; we therefore are eager to unite our efforts with the efforts of our respective Governments, scientists and world community.

            Out of this sense of responsibility to our ancestors and our future generations, we indigenous cultural practitioners stress the central role of the snow leopard in survival of humanity facing civilization crisis, which is threatening our mountains with the cold breath of death. Snow leopards and other totem animals call usthrough drastic change in their usual behaviorfor spiritual renewal, for recognition and respect of the rights of Mother Nature. The snow leopard conservation measures cannot be limited just to the creation of new parks and protected territories. Conservation needs to be inclusive of the revival of cultural reverence and connectivity to these totem animals and strengthening of existing sacred sites.

            Today snow leopard range countries have a unique opportunity to create a system of snow leopard survival based on the spiritual and cultural resurgence of indigenous and local communities who share with this animal its habitat, i.e. revival of the large cultural landscapes and sacred sites. We, as indigenous cultural practitioners, are ready to strengthen educational, spiritual, and ceremonial ways to ensure return of respect to the snow leopard as an ambassador of Mother Nature. Indigenous and local communities are ready to take relevant actions to ensure sustainability of the snow leopard’s prey species by banning shooting in sacred places and by enhancing sustainable traditional hunting practices.

            We recognize the value of integration of our traditional knowledge with conservation science and are ready for cooperation. We call upon our Governments to enable active, full, and effective participation of indigenous and local communities, including cultural practitioners, in the development and implementation of local, national, regional, and global plans for conservation of snow leopard ecosystems through clear mechanisms of coordination, inclusion, and respect.

On October 23, 2013, the Global Forum delegates met at the Kyrgyz State Residence, where the Global Initiative was endorsed by all twelve snow leopard range countries. Key participants and range country representatives were given a brief opportunity to address the Forum.  Rodney Jackson read excerpts from the ICP Statement, and at the end of a long day, at the Forum’s request, Zhaparkul Raiymkulov performed a brief closing ceremony.

This is was a historic opportunity both to bring Indigenous Cultural Practitioners together for the sake of snow leopards, and to have their voices directly heard in government level planning for conservation of these amazing wild cats.


                              -By Darla Hillard

                              Education Director, Snow Leopard Conservancy


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Impressions from Kyrgyzstan

Sep 27, 2013 10:03 pm

Rodney Jackson and Darla Hillard of Snow Leopard Conservancy just returned from spending two weeks in the Kyrgyz Republic and France with Indigenous Cultural Practitioners from around the world to work towards linking western science and indigenous practices for snow leopard conservation.  The account below is from Nargiza Ryskulova, one of the translators and videographers at the gathering.  

snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan

Snow leopard seen by Nargiza


Suddenly she came out from the bushes: a spotted large cat, so beautiful I have never seen before. I stood there speechless, afraid to move, afraid that she will hear me from beneath the gates. She turned her head suddenly and looked into me with mesmerizing blue eyes, then she walked slowly from one point to another and hid in the shade. I could hear my heart beating loudly. This was the first time I saw a live snow leopard.


How many of Kyrgyzstani have seen a live snow leopard? How many of us know anything about snow leopard? Do you know that Kyrgyzstan is one of the 12 countries, where snow leopard is still preserved? Neither did I until this year when I was invited to participate in preliminary meeting of traditional practitioners from various country to draft a suggestion from indigenous people to UN policy makers on how to preserve a snow leopard.


At the meeting I have met people from America, Mongolia, Altai, Kyrgyzstan, Buratia all gathered together and speaking about forgotten knowledge of their people, the knowledge of snow leopard. As I was listening to these indigenous elders I wondered how far my generation is from nature. The answer was very far.

16 people standing for photo

Members of the gathering in Kyrgyzstan

A snow leopard was one of the most valued animals in every country it lived ; for several reasons, one being that it was believed to be an animal that speaks of the purity of its ecosystem. It was also known as one of the purest and courteous predators, which would never attack a human being or a sick animal, or a domestic animal. It’s eating, mating and living habits spoke of its wisdom, efficiency, and often sacredness for the indigidenous people, who shared the habitat with snow leopard. They believed that spirit of snow leopard , lives on the top of the highest mountain and unties people with nature, they believed that snow leopard’s presence ensures the connection.

Now both the behavior of humans and snow leopards has changed. People hunt snowleopards for their fur that costs 3000 usd on the black market, people hunt its prey mountain goats, archars and any other animal they can hunt. Snow leopard fights against extinction, kills domestic animals, for which get killed by locals, still move closer to extinction.

The snow leopard I saw was limping; it is kept in reservoir of animals taken away from poachers. It will never be able to live in wilderness again, this beautiful animal was ruined by humans, just like most of the nature around us. I wondered how far my generation will go in reconnecting with nature and how much we will have to suffer from paybacks for deeds of humans to the nature.

-by Nargiza Ryskulova

-photos by Beth Duncan

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Rodney Jackson Nominated for Prestigious 2014 Indianapolis Prize

Sep 25, 2013 11:22 pm

Dr. Jackson in the Running for $250,000 Prize and Animal Conservation Award

Dr. Rodney Jackson, founder and director of Snow Leopard Conservancy, along with 38 other conservationists who have dedicated their lives to saving the Earth’s endangered species – has been nominated to receive the biennial Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. A Prize Jury will determine the winner of the Prize who will receive an unrestricted $250,000 cash award and the Lilly Medal. Five other finalists will each receive $10,000.

“The current nominees are exceptional and they represent the most significant wildlife conservationists working in the field today,” said Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, which initiated the Indianapolis Prize as part of its core mission to advance animal conservation. “There’s now pretty much a universal understanding in conservation circles that the Indianapolis Prize is the Nobel Prize of animal conservation. If you’re a wildlife conservationist, you want to win this thing.”

An international Nominating Committee composed of renowned professional conservationists and local representatives reviews all nominations and selects six finalists. The six finalists are then sent to the Prize Jury, a separate group that selects the winner. The winner will be announced in mid-2014 and honored at the next Indianapolis Prize Gala presented by Cummins Inc., to be held Sept. 27, 2014, in Indianapolis.

For the past 35 years, Dr. Jackson has dedicated his life to protecting the wild snow leopard by putting community-based stewardship into action through grass roots conservation initiatives, range-country environmental education, training of herders in wildlife monitoring and collaborative research blending traditional knowledge and modern science.

“Being nominated once again for the Indianapolis Prize is an incredible honor for me personally, but more importantly, it puts a spotlight on the snow leopard–whose disappearance would not only foretell the ecological collapse of high mountain ecology in central Asia, it would deeply affect indigenous communities for whom the snow leopard indicates the state of spiritual and sociocultural well being.” says Jackson.

The Indianapolis Prize was first awarded in 2006 to George Archibald, Ph.D., the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. The 2008 winner was George Schaller, Ph.D., senior conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and an icon in field conservation around the world. In 2010, the Indianapolis Prize was awarded to Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Ph.D., founder of Save the Elephants, who pioneered research in elephant social behavior and has led the way in fighting poaching of African elephants. Steven Amstrup, Ph.D., of Polar Bears International, received the 2012 Indianapolis Prize for his work with polar bears and the effect of climate change on the world’s largest land carnivore.


About The Indianapolis Prize:

The Indianapolis Prize was initiated by the Indianapolis Zoo as a significant component of its mission to empower people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation. This biennial award brings the world’s attention to the cause of animal conservation and the brave, talented and dedicated men and women who spent their lives saving the Earth’s endangered animal species. The Indianapolis Prize has received support from the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation since its inception in 2006.

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