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Conservation in Changtang: Securing a Future for the Snow Leopard

By Xiaoxing Bian

In early 2015, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and Panthera initiated a joint project to fill the gaps in understanding about the conservation status of snow leopards and to implement appropriate actions to protect them in China. Particular emphasis is being paid to the animals in the Changtang landscape of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Here I share a day’s conservation work with my colleague Dorje Jyal.

The magnificent Changtang landscape with mountain, lake, grassland and running kiangs. Credit: Xuchang Liang, WCS China/Panthera.

It was November in Changtang—part of the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau in western and northern Tibet, China, extending into southeastern Ladakh, India. Temperatures here during the cold nights can reach -30℃ (-20°F). The howling wind carrying sand and dust was so strong that I could lean directly into the gusts and not fall to the ground. This is the mountainous home of the snow leopard.

“You go right and I’ll go there to check that rock.”

I split up from my partner and had to take three short breaks to adjust to the high altitude—4925 meters, or over 16,000 feet (higher than the Rocky Mountains)—as I hiked, huffing and puffing, all the way onto a huge rock some 80 meters above the river valley. In terms of terrain, it looked like a good site for a snow leopard to mark its territory. As I looked down to inspect the ground, I was reminded of the bitter cold as a drop of clear mucus streaming down my nose instantly froze in my nostrils.

A WCS staff member and a local ranger deploying an infrared camera by the lake Silin Co. Credit: Xiaoxing Bian, WCS China/Panthera.

“Dorje, Dorje!” I called into the walkie-talkie slung around my left shoulder. “I got two fresh scrapes here! How are things on your end?”

A scrape is a distinctive sign left by a snow leopard when it scuffs the ground with its hind paws. Scrapes and other signs provide the important basis for where to deploy our camera stations. I took out my survey sheet and GPS device to record the coordinates of the current location and description of the traces.

My walkie-talkie came alive with Dorje’s response, “I got some fairly old feces and the scrape here looks quite old, too, covered by a layer of gravel.”

During our field survey, we collect fecal samples based on the high probability that they belong to snow leopards. We will study the feeding habits, species distribution, genetic diversity, and more by analyzing the samples in collaboration with Panthera.

Two snow leopards resting after feeding. Credit: WCS China/Panthera.

“I’m gonna join you after I collect samples,” Dorje added.

Dorje, my colleague from the WCS China Lhasa Office, is Tibetan and an experienced snow leopard tracker. He is quick and agile. A couple of minutes later, he showed up beside me, hardly out of breath. “The scrape looks perfect! Very fresh!” he agreed.

It was an ideal spot for a snow leopard to leave traces and mark its territory. And therefore an excellent place for our camera. We moved several rocks into a stable pile about six or seven feet from the rock face and fixed an infrared camera at the top. We pointed the lens towards the existing scrapes. Getting down on my knees, I posed as a snow leopard by the rock while Dorje carefully set the camera up to make sure it would capture my motion.

This was the first attempt of a snow leopard survey across the Changtang region of the Tibetan Plateau. We decided on an 800-square-kilometer survey area, with an average elevation of 5,300 meters (some 17,300 feet). It is a challenging terrain indeed, but this is where you go to learn about the snow leopard.

On the way to retrieve cameras in the late winter of Changtang. Credit: Xiaoxing Bian, WCS China/Panthera.

Ever-increasing threats to this iconic animal include poaching, habitat loss, overhunting of its wild prey, and conflict with people.

Fortunately, our efforts have been rewarded by this amazing video of a snow leopards family, with two cubs believed to be about 10-12 months old playing a quick game of “hide and seek” and reminding us of why we do what we do as conservationists.

More than a job, it is a labor of love. In this crazy world, we wish each and every snow leopard all the best in Changtang.

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Xiaoxing Bian is a conservationist with the China Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).