We will be more successful in protecting snow leopards if we have reliable information on where they occur, which areas contain the best numbers and which populations are most at risk from factors including poaching and habitat change. Status and distribution surveys better enable us to target key areas, as well as design and evaluate cost-effective programs. Monitoring plays a vital role in verifying changes to the snow leopard population after a conservation program has been initiated. Increased snow leopard or prey numbers and a more accepting local human population are important indicators that the program is achieving its intended goal and objectives
Snow leopards are extremely difficult to monitor over time. Attempts at counting them are greatly hampered by their shyness and naturally low densities, activity patterns, and wide-ranging movements.
Snow leopard captured on camera trap in Nepal leaving a scent mark (photo: SLC/NTNC/ACAP)
But these cats do leave evidence of their presence through pugmarks, feces, scent-sprays, claw-rakes, the remains from kills, and scrapes made by scuffing the ground with their back feet. Scrapes may persist for a year or more and are regularly rescraped by resident cats. Such sign helps solitary snow leopards communicate with one another, enabling males to stay out of each other’s way and thus avoid a potentially dangerous confrontation. They may also help a female with cubs avoid infanticide by those males who did not sire her litter.
We know from telemetry studies that male and female home ranges overlap, and they have commonly used core areas that intersect the most favorable local topography, habitat, and prey base. We also know that typically only one individual is present at a time in a particular area, except during courtship. Mountain ridges, cliff edges, and drainage lines serve as common travel routes and sites for the deposition of the different sign they leave. (Details can be found in: Marking in Free-Ranging Snow Leopards in West Nepal: a Preliminary Assessment.)
Snow leopard marking a rock in Altai Republic of Russia (photo: Arkhar)
Core areas may be marked significantly more often, suggesting that these signs may help space individuals and facilitate more efficient use of sparse resources. Marking frequency varies seasonally, reaching peak intensities during the narrow mating season between January and late March each year. (Details can be found in: Snow Leopards Panthera Uncia in Nepal—Home Range and Movements.)
There are five methods for monitoring snow leopards, each differing in terms of complexity, cost, and information generated: