Field Report from Jomsom Mustang, June 2012

Dec 11, 2012 5:12 pm

Greeting from Annapurna!

I descended to Jomsom from the alpine pasture, yesterday, 21 June. I had arrived in Jomsom (Mustang) on the 18th of June on a jeep. There was no guarantee of flights from Pokhara (weather problem), so I had to hire a jeep on 17 June to reach Mustang in the morning of 18 June — the day when the snow leopard scouts committee was formed.

Mustang snow leopard scouts

Each and every year a new eco-club network is organized in Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) – Jomsom in which 11 members will get selected as the eco-club members, to serve for that year, from the student representatives from 11 different schools. This eco-club network is also the snow leopard scouts committee. All members are typically the sixth, seventh and eighth graders. There are reasons why we wish to have the students from 6, 7, and 8 grades [12 to 15 age group] as the snow leopard scouts: This is the age when children are most receptive about everything including nature conservation. These scouts along with other students, teachers, and governmental workers (over 35) were briefed on snow leopard activities. The new snow leopard scouts were then led to environmental/snow leopard camp from 19 to 21 June in the alpine pasture (camping elevation c. 4,000m). In total, 11 new members, one old snow leopard scout, one herder, one local teacher participated in the environmental camp. The program was coordinated by ACAP ranger, conservation education teacher, and SLC coordinator. Among others, the following activities took place –

1. Environmental debate. Students were grouped into two and they were given relevant materials on snow leopard and other local wildlife species to go through prior to the debate. The discussion and debate took two hours. The aim was to assess their interests and enthusiasm on snow leopard and other local flora and fauna.

2. Nature drawing and field-note writing.

3. Snow leopard sign tracking and blue sheep observation and classification

4. Learning about and installing cameras on strategic snow leopard walking trails.

Snow Leopard Scouts in Mustang

Note that this year students are going to install in total three cameras, NOT nine, as in 2011. In 2011, because the snow leopard scouts (lower Mustang) were able to capture three distinct, adult snow leopards, the plan for 2012 is to set three cameras in best locales where the probabilities of catching the snow leopard is highest. The objective was to monitor the three snow leopards of 2011 in 2012 also. On 20 June, students — after learning about the nitty-gritty of remote-camera technology and operating system — installed one camera in Vrapsa at the elevation of c. 4,559m. The interesting aspect of this year’s camera trapping was that OLD snow leopard scout was instrumental in guiding fresh snow leopard scouts.

Snow leopard award at Everest

Also attached is a photo image, not from Annapurna snow leopard scouts event, but that from Mt. Everest. If you remember well, I informed you earlier that I, as the representative of the Snow leopard Conservancy, was awarded a snow leopard dummy that students and teachers on Mt. Everest prepared – a strong indication that snow leopard conservation and education program so far conducted have been well received. This was presented June 5, the world environmental day, amid a huge gathering. This was also the day when snow leopard scouts, from eco-club members, were formed to represent the entire Khumbu. Talk to you later. Cheers, Som PS: I am off to upper Mustang tomorrow, 23 June, for ten days or so.

Reported by Som Ale our Regional Director for Nepal Education and Conservation

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Mongolian Scat Collection, February 2012

Dec 11, 2012 4:59 pm

Sleuthing for Snow Leopard Conservation through the DNA of Poop By Jan Janečka, Ph.D.

As the bitter wind bites the exposed flesh of my hands, I fumble with my GPS to get a location of the tracks we have just found.  Despite my fatigue and the pain in my legs, and the burning sensation in my lungs from the cold, I am excited as I follow the footsteps of a wild snow leopard just a few hours after he or she passed through the area.

Mountain range in Mongolia

We come up to the top of the ridge; the endless Gobi spreads below us its rocky camel-colored steppe-lands.  We find what we have been searching for – snow leopard poop. It may seem outlandish that I flew from Texas to the middle of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, and with my Mongolian colleagues embarked on a 700-mile expedition just to find scats, but with the breakthroughs in genetic analysis, there is a goldmine of information that we can now obtain from the droppings of the endangered snow leopard.

Gathering samples in the field in Mongolia

Snow leopards are among the most elusive animals. In addition, they occur in very remote areas hard to reach by biologists and even harder to work in. It is therefore not surprising we have very little information on the abundance of snow leopards in much of the mountainous areas they inhabit.

Yet for conservation, we need to get a handle on the number of snow leopards in an area. Why? Well, conservation actions are expensive and time consuming. To protect the species effectively we need to know in which areas they are threatened and where actions that protect these remarkable animals are most needed. In addition, we need to know if our efforts are working. Genetic analysis of scat can meet these informational needs.

Sample vial

Snow leopards deposit scat in very predictable places and the cold dry environment preserves the genetic material. We put a small piece of scat in each secure sampling tube, along with a desiccant. Back in the laboratory, the DNA is carefully extracted from the fecal material and a small portion of a gene is sequenced to verify that it is from a snow leopard. The scat is analyzed using the same techniques that forensic scientists use to identify evidence at a crime scene. Turns out that up to two thirds of the scats that we thought were snow leopard can be from red foxes. Genotyping of microsatellites provides a genetic fingerprint for recognizing individuals.  In the map below you can see locations where we collected the scats of three different cats. By collecting all scats over time, we can estimate abundance.

Data analysis of snow leopard ranges

We have compared camera trapping and these noninvasive genetics scat surveys in the Gobi Desert and found the genetic approach more rapid and cost effective. We have developed a partnership between Snow Leopard ConservancyTexas A&M UniversityMongolian Academy of Sciences, and Irbis Mongolia. Together, and with the generous financial partnership of the Bowman Family Foundation, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Tapeats Fund, and many individual donors, we are finally getting a handle on population information throughout Mongolia.

I am happy for the privilege of experiencing the snow leopard’s harsh realm while working with many dedicated biologists, conservationists, and local communities. Even if I never get closer to these remarkable animals than placing my hand in a fresh pugmark in the snow, or reaching for that next piece of poop, it is still a thrill that through my genetic work these cats are unwittingly contributing to their own conservation.

Reported by Jan Janecka, SLC Partner and Professor of Genetics at Texas A&M University

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