Notes From the Field: Snow Leopards in the Tien Shan Mountains

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Greetings from Urumqi,

I am in the Xinjiang province of northwest China, continuing a project that focuses on the conservation of snow leopards. In this project, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is working with Chinese colleagues to learn more about the current status of snow leopards in the Tien Shan Mountains, a need highlighted in the most recent conservation plan of the Snow Leopard Network. We are using trail cameras and interviews with herders to assess the population size of snow leopards and their potential prey, such as ibex. Eventually, we hope to use this information to set up protected areas. We also try to learn about threats to leopard conservation from human-leopard conflict. This conflict arises when leopards kill livestock, such as sheep, and herders retaliate by killing leopards.

We set 20 trail cameras last December, and checked them in March before setting another 30 cameras. These cameras were checked again in July, and there were more than 400 pictures of snow leopards from 35 cameras as well as pictures of other carnivores, including wolves and foxes and potential prey such as ibex and red deer. This time, I returned to China with several objectives. First, I wanted to download the pictures and begin analysis to see how many leopards were represented in the pictures. I also wanted to visit for the first time the field site south of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Finally, I was also very keen to check on progress in setting up protected areas.

As for my first objective, there were some great pictures. In fact, several cameras had pictures of more than one individual leopard. For example, there was a picture of a leopard spraying rock with urine and another leopard investigating it afterwards. There was also a picture of a leopard visiting a vulture nest.   There were no eggs or hatchlings in the nest, but it was very interesting to see that a leopard could even access such a difficult to reach site. There were at least two individuals on other cameras as well, but it is still necessary for more analysis to see how many more individual leopards are present to estimate population densities.

It was also very interesting to visit for the first time the study site 50 miles south of Urumqi. Unfortunately, at this time there was little wildlife because it was a very busy time with herders moving their flocks down from summer pastures. But it was nice to learn that there was little human-leopard conflict here unlike at field sites to the west. In fact, the herders accept some leopard predation on their livestock somewhat like the price of doing business, while other herders are much more concerned with the bottom line and don’t put up with leopard predation, which is an interesting cultural distinction.

I was also very happy to complete a report with our Chinese colleagues for submission to the Chinese government. The report proposes establishing eight protected areas in the eastern Tien Shan Mountains, and our camera data were a critical component. A similar report for the western Tien Shan Mountains is forthcoming.

– Dr. Paul Buzzard

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