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

Notes from the Field: Urumqi, China

Paul Buzzard is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Ni hao! I am in Urumqi, China, working on our snow leopard conservation project.  Our goal is to learn more about the current status of snow leopards in the Tien Shan Paul Buzzard in Tianshan by MaMing 2015Mountains.  We are using trail cameras and interviewing herders to assess the snow leopard population and the population of their potential prey, including ibex, and to learn about human-leopard conflict. Conflict arises when leopards kill livestock, like sheep, which sometimes results in herders killing leopards.

We set up trail Snow leopards trail camera - Chinacameras when I was here in December, so I returned to check them and to set up additional cameras in new areas in the western Tien Shan.

The first two cameras we checked had pictures of snow leopards – including one with two leopards! The next seven cameras didn’t have any pictures of leopards, though most had pictures of other wildlife, including ibex, wolves and foxes. Because of heavy snowfall, we weren’t able to Trail camera - China ibexcheck all of the cameras, but we reset the ones we did and set up additional cameras in other promising areas. We also made plans to move two of the cameras that were unsuccessful in capturing leopard pictures several miles further into the mountains, which we will do on horseback.

In the west, near the Kazakhstan border, Paul Buzzard - China horsebackit was much, much more remote: I was the second foreigner and the first American to visit the county seat in more than 25 years. It was a four-hour drive to the protection station and then a seven-hour horseback ride to a Kazakh herder winter house. This cozy oasis, though simple, was a warm retreat after trail-riding up and down rocky and icy trails. Plus, the noodles and butter tea really hit the spot.

Unfortunately, the accommodations were not particularly restful with six to eight people sleeping side-by-side, some of whom were aggressive snorers. It was ultimately Paul Buzzard in Tianshan by MaMingworth any discomfort because we retrieved cameras containing more snow leopard and ibex pictures and reset the cameras that were on high passes and overlooking some stunning valleys. We left 12 cameras with our Chinese colleagues to set in additional valleys.

The Tien Shan Mountains, from east to west, Paul - China - Mountains on horsebackis clearly an important area for snow leopards. There is much interest from our Chinese colleagues in setting up protected areas, such as provincial or national reserves. To do this, more snow leopard pictures are needed to robustly document the importance of certain regions.  It is also important to address the human-wildlife conflict in some areas.

For example, it was reported in one place that five snow leopards are killed per year for eating approximately 100 sheep per year (out of nearly 200,000 total sheep). Such claims need to be confirmed, but if anywhere near this much conflict is occurring, it needs to be reduced.

– Paul Buzzard

Notes from the Field – Xinjiang, China

Detroit Zoological Society Director of Conservation Paul Buzzard is doing fieldwork in Xinjiang, China.

This conservation project in China’s northwest Xinjiang province focuses on getting a better understanding of the snow leopard population in the Tien Shan Mountains. We are interested in estimating how many snow leopards are left in the Tien Shan as well as assessing the local attitudes toward snow leopards and the threats from poaching. To get this information, we use camera traps to get pictures of leopards and the animals they prey on and conduct interviews with the local herders.

It’s been a very successful if short trip to the field this time. My plan was to travel to Xinjiang in northwest China primarily for meetings with local collaborators in snow leopard and wild camel research. We had originally planned to set camera traps for snow leopards near Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi the day after my arrival. However, when I was picked up at the airport, we decided to head out immediately to a much more interesting area several hours to the west in the Central Tien Shan mountains.  I was very excited to spend the majority of the trip in the field and to visit the Tien Shan for the first time.

We set up camera traps despite the below zero temperatures, several flat tires and hazardous road conditions. We drove south from the city of Wusu into the valleys until rock slides or icy rivers impeded further progress and then hiked up side valleys to set the traps.

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Once we got into the mountains we almost immediately started seeing herds of Siberian ibex, a wild goat that is a favorite prey of snow leopards.

We also heard reports of many argali big horn sheep, so it definitely appeared to be prime snow leopard habitat. This was confirmed when we saw the remains of an ibex likely killed by a leopard as well as lots of snow leopard tracks and droppings. The ibex were so common that they were literally falling from the sky. One day when we were driving back one of the forestry officials yelled for us to stop because at the side of the road was a dead ibex. It was frozen stiff but it had no puncture wounds from a leopard and it looked like it had slipped and fallen to its death. Ibex are normally very sure footed, so it is possible that it was fleeing from a snow leopard when it lost its footing. We only had time to set up five of the camera traps and the remaining 15 will be set up by colleagues.

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I plan to return next February or March to check the traps and also investigate the conflict between herders and leopards. The Kazak and Uygur herders sometimes lose sheep to leopards and it is necessary to determine if a compensation program can be established so herders are paid for lost livestock and leopards are not killed in retaliation.

Before the return trip to Detroit, I stopped off in Urumqi to meet with the director of the Lop Nur Nature Reserve in southwest Xinjiang. The Lop Nur Reserve has one of the largest sub-populations of the wild Bactrian camel, which is one of the most critically endangered mammals in the world.  We are exploring the potential for the Detroit Zoological Society to collaborate in wild camel research and help save them from extinction. Domestic Bactrian camels, like the ones living at the Detroit Zoo, have been changed from their wild ancestors over two thousand years as humans have bred them to be pack animals. Domestic Bactrian camels are somewhat larger than wild Bactrian camels, and they lack the ability of wild camels to survive drought by drinking saltwater.

– Paul Buzzard