Central Asia needs to check the endangered snow leopard's (Panthera uncial) populations throughout the vast mountain ranges of the Pamir, Tien Shan, Altai, Karakoram and Himalaya. Nepali scientists have carried out a very useful preliminary survey which is likely to bring us to a full understanding of the precarious perch that is the situation both of the snow leopard and its hold on existence.
Starting to check their population of 350-500 animals, the researchers were based in Kathmandu and Texas. Western Shey Phoksundo NP and Kangchanjunga Conservation Area in far-eastern Nepal were chosen for this first survey. It should now be duplicated throughout the animal's range in Nepal and then in all of the twelve countries within the species' range. Here is the Nepali map and an indication of the researchers' future search for more of this most elusive species.
Map of the study sites: The snow leopard study sites (highlighted) - Shey Phoksundo National Park (SPNP) in the west and Kanchanjunga Conservation Area (KCA) in the east of Nepal. Annapurna Conservation Area, Rolwaling Himal and Sagarmatha National Park are also prime habitat for snow leopards; Credit: BioMed Central
The non-invasive sampling technique of choice was scat-collection and 71 supposed scats was a commendable total, although only 27% were genetically identified as the species. Over half of these were genotyped, but two were identical, leaving nine individuals, 4 in SPNP (one male and three females) and 5 in KCA (two males and three females). Identification of snow leopard scats was carried out with the help of the authors, Dibesh Karmacharya and Jan E Janecka, using a PCR assay developed at Texas A&M. Similar to a previous Mongolian survey, the success rate for such an elusive cat was quite high, the method inexpensive and the results very satisfactory.
This preliminary survey pinpointed the need for proper and rapid collection technique, as much of the collections had been kept for three years at incorrect temperatures and in damp conditions. The work would have been helped by training dogs to detect snow leopard scats among all the other carnivore faeces that turned up. However, having ironed out the initial problems, this important feline can now be assessed more properly in other mountain areas. It's heartening that even when the good samples had problems such as allele dropout in their genotyping, the researchers still achieved good results from the local labs.
Hopefully snow leopard densities of 5-10 per 100 km2 in the uninhabited areas such as Langu valley in the west will now be confirmed. The study of genetic diversity and social structure is an exciting possibility if this technique proves both useful and popular. Even the Red Book infers there has been no analysis of intra-specific variation in the species yet. Crucial to any breeding, natural or otherwise, is the knowledge of how distinct the gene pools and also the behaviours might be.
This research has for the first time produced unique individual genotypes, which were used to create estimated allele frequencies and begin the slow process of assessing genetic diversity. Population size and density figures await the reporting of more findings, hopefully both from Nepal and many other countries, in the near future. This very close relative of the tiger must be allowed to recover from its recent disastrous fall in population.