Page last updated at 08:55 GMT, Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Snow Leopard Diary

Snow leopard (Snow Leopard Trust)
The team has already managed to fit a collar to one cat
A research project is under way to learn more about the elusive snow leopard.

A team has travelled to the Chitral Gol National Park in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders to attach Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) collars to five of the cats, to understand more about the animals' movements.

With one snow leopard successfully tagged, the team is hopeful its mission will be a success, and the team members will be charting their progress for the BBC News website.

The final instalment comes from Dr Tom McCarthy, project leader and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

5 FEBRUARY: END OF THE SEASON

Bayed (Snow Leopard Trust)
Bayed was snared for a third time

Perhaps one word best describes the conditions in the study area over the last month - snow.

Oddly, back in November, we worried about the lack of it, when the highest ridgelines were bare and markhor (wild goats) and snow leopards had no reason to move down nearer our snares.

But in early December, we got our wish - and more - with traps being buried under a foot of the white stuff on a frequent basis. January was tougher as we struggled through waist-deep drifts to keep even a third of the snares open.

We knew this was our last chance of the season to catch a new snow leopard. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Bayad snared - again

After breeding, the markhor moved up, away from our valley, to graze high on south-facing slopes kept snow-free by winter sun. And the leopards followed their food.

But we could not find a single fresh track in weeks - except for those of our friend Bayad-e-Kohsaar who didn't seem ready to leave us despite having been captured twice.

This worried us.

Near the base camp (Snow Leopard Trust)

Every effort is made to avoid stress and injury to animals captured for these studies, yet some risks remain.

Bayad had fared very well on her first two captures, but we were not looking to capture her again this season. Besides, any potential male breeding partner seemed to have left the area.

We quickly decided to close the snares - but snow leopards are even quicker, and before we could act, she had again found a trap near camp to step into.

She and the researchers knew the routine well, and she was lightly sedated and released. All the snares were closed before she walked away from us.

In the picture

With the traps closed the next study phase started.

Again struggling through snow to reach the far corners of the park, we set out more than 20 automated cameras.

Each camera is equipped with a heat and motion sensor and will take a photo of passing animals.

The cameras will operate for two months, requiring several visits to replace batteries and film. The result will be a collection of pictures which we hope includes many of the leopards.

Comparing each cat's unique spot patterns will allow us to estimate the number of leopards using the park, informing us how many cats we should be looking for when collaring starts again in spring.

Another difficult but critical task will be to keep tabs on Bayad.

With her collar still not making the GPS data uplinks, we must frequently track her on foot and intercept the signal her collar is trying to send the satellite.

Snow Leopard (Ashley Spearing)
The automated cameras will image passing snow leopards

But this requires being within a kilometre of the cat when the signal is sent - every other Monday at 1500 sharp. Not an easy task!

By spring, when collaring starts again, we should have the signal problem fixed, but until then it's twice-monthly meetings with Bayad somewhere in the mountains.

Research realities

Overall, the past three months have been a success, despite fewer collared cats than we had hoped for, and even without the collars working precisely as planned.

This is the reality of wildlife research; nothing is guaranteed and only with patience and a lot of work can we get the information we need for the long-term conservation of these magnificent cats.

I think every member of our team would argue that it's an important and worthwhile effort.

It has been fun sharing our stories with the BBC News website's readers and we hope we can be back with you in the spring!

Dr Tom McCarthy, project leader and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

17 JANUARY: A DRAMATIC RECAPTURE

I am writing this entry from the comforts of my office in the US.

Wildlife biologist Eric York is currently leading our efforts in the snow-covered Chitral Gol, but telecoms glitches - satellite phones never work like they should - mean that I am relaying his most recent endeavours during what has been an action packed few days.

We recently discovered the collar we had placed on the female snow leopard Bayad-e-Kohsaar in November was collecting and storing her GPS data but was failing to successfully relay this crucial information back to us via satellite.

Not wanting to lose this key opportunity to track the movements of this cat, we took the decision to attempt to recapture her and fit her with a new collar.

A spot of luck

By a stroke of good fortune, Bayed had returned to the Chitral Gol National Park.

Snow leopard (Snow Leopard Trust)
Bayed-el-Kohsaar was first captured in November

Her re-emergence was signalled as she came back into radio receiver range, and Eric could track her movements as she roamed near the Kasavir mountains.

With the team, he set about putting more snares out on the high ridges of this area, in the hope Bayad might pass through.

And it worked. A few days later, Eric had trapped her high on the ridge, very close to spot where we had snared, and then lost, a large male snow leopard back in November.

However, the drama was not yet over for the team.

The anaesthetic was not working as quickly as it usually does, and Eric was reluctant to give her more, so opted instead to carefully change the collar while she was still partially awake and mobile. The collar exchange went well with both researcher and cat coming away without a scratch.

Once it was attached and Bayad had spent four hours in a recovery cage coming to, the snow leopard set off, running up the steep ridge.

Her signal now indicates she may be heading back to the Tooshi Game Reserve where we had picked up her signal just before the New Year. We will be following her movements closely over the coming months.

Coming to an end?

Meanwhile, we now have her used-collar to hand, along with the 150 locations that have been stored upon it.

We will be bringing the collar back to the US to start the process of recovering all of that data and mapping her movements of the past 50 days.

Its memory chip now contains more information on snow leopard movements and habitat use than we would have gained from two years of tracking her using ground-based methods.

These cats are just too hard to follow through that extremely rugged habitat on foot! The GPS collar did all of the hard work for us.

Trail to snares (Tom McCarthy)
The trail in Chitral Gol is perilous - even without snow

But what of our aims to capture and tag four more of the cats? I will be heading back to Chitral in a few days to re-assess our next steps.

We will be watching carefully this week to see if any males come into the area looking for a female, since it is now the breeding season. If Bayad has a hopeful suitor - perhaps the escape artist male we encountered before - we could be in luck.

But if this fails, we may have to bring the trapping to a halt, at least until the summer - there has just been too much snow and too little sign of the cats. Snow leopards never make it too easy for us.

Dr Tom McCarthy, project leader and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

1 JANUARY: CHRISTMAS AT CHITRAL GOL

Since my last account, Eric York, a veteran of over 700 large carnivore captures, has arrived to add fresh impetus to our task.

With over a month now passed since our first capture, it was time to reassess.

Map of Chitral Gol National Park

Was there something we were missing or something the maps were not showing us?

We decided to return to Bayad-e-Kohsaar, the snow leopard we had successfully tagged, to see if her trail might lead us to more of the elusive cats.

A change of plan

From two hours hike high above the Purdum Mali Ridge, we picked up her signal far off in the Tooshi Game Reserve.

One could almost retrace her probable route: along the Chitral Gol and then a sharp right-turn at the imposing Kasavir mountain, the position of our last radio contact with her in the park some weeks ago.

Tracing this path, we spied tracks in the snow-covered streambed heading towards Kasavir. Given that they were only a couple of days old and Bayad's present location, surely these were from a different cat.

Maybe this mountain was more important than we had first thought. We decided to rearrange our snares to cover the exits in and out of Kasavir.

While this boosted our chances of capturing another cat, placing snares further from camp also meant many prolonged two-hour torch-lit hikes across the cliffs to check these extra traps.

And in the run up to Christmas with the markhor rut in full swing, I cannot recall a day when we were not the victims of a false alarm when one of these wild goats would trigger a trap before darting free from the snare loops with their spindly legs.

White Christmas

Christmas also brought us 20 wildlife department staff to share our dining room (also our living room and bedroom) and mutton curry. But with the festivities came another 48 hours of heavy snow.

credit: Snow Leopard Trust
It was mutton curry at Christmas for the snow leopard team

The harsh conditions meant the snares would be dangerous for a cat trapped for a prolonged period and this warranted the team to spend their Christmas sharing responsibility for the night vigil.

Would the heavy snow force a cat down from the high ridgelines in search of an easy meal? We hoped so.

But sure enough, at 2am we were breaking trail in three feet of snow for nothing. Confronted, unsurprisingly, by only snow.

Wide-awake and adrenaline-fuelled, by 11am on the day after Christmas, all the decorations were down - but so too were the snares.

The snow would put us out of action for the next five days, hoping the New Year would bring new fortunes and a second cat.

Ashley Spearing

14 DECEMBER: HIGHS AND LOWS

Lowary Pass (Bill Hogue/Snow Leopard Trust)
An avalanche struck on the Lowary Pass

Capturing a further four snow leopards was never going to be easy, and the last 14 days both in and out of the field are testimony to this.

I have been travelling from the UK to Chitral to take over from project leader Tom McCarthy for the next phase of the mission.

As I journeyed into the Chitral district, over the Lowary Pass, the weather turned with a cruel menace.

Fatal avalanches bombarded all in front of us, and my WWF colleague and I were spared life by a mere 10m.

Others were not so fortunate. We are eternally grateful to the Pashtun men who rescued us that night.

Escape act

Meanwhile, in Chitral Gol, a capture team experienced the highs and lows of seeing a wily large adult male leopard escaping a locked snare at the last moment. Uncovering the movements of a large male cat is something we all desperately crave.

To make matters worse, the heavy snows then arrived, caching both snares and trails beneath a blanket of snow two feet deep and effectively immobilising the mission.

The captors captured by the snow leopard's realm.

However, while this was happening I was still struggling to reach the team.

With Lowary Pass no longer a sane course, and the vehicular route via Afghanistan certainly not my preferred option, after days of impatience I finally arrived in Chitral Gol via air.

My arrival coincided with snow melt and the departure of my mentor and friend Tom McCarthy.

Rogue wolf

With time of the essence, we enlisted the help of live bait to lure the cats in. Sure enough, four days in, our routine 530am radio signal snare check generated hysteria to rival any alarm clock.

To our surprise and disappointment however, at the end of the snare was a large female wolf, weighing about 45kg.

Funnily enough, the local watchers were adamant that the Purdum Mali (which means snow leopard home) trail was inhabited only by cats. As you can imagine, much banter soon ensued.

With regards to the live bait, the cats are literally not biting, even upon the Purdum Mali ridge where we captured the first cat, Bayad-e-Kohsaar.

Through the centuries the Chitral Gol was to all intents and purposes a hunting reserve.

Consequently it is no surprise that wily cats may avoid the temptation of a tethered meal, a common trick in the armoury of a generation of hunters in the Chitral Gol.

So, still four cats to go - but what of our first cat?

To date, we have located her roaming far and wide.

And most recently, a BBC film crew, 20km away, filmed a cat hunting with the unmistakable matching green ear tags that Bayad-e-Kohsaar was fitted!

Ashley Spearing

28 NOVEMBER: THE STORY SO FAR

Warm greetings from Chitral Gol National Park. Well, sort of warm; I am sitting near the fire with my woollen Chitrali shawl around me on a brisk (33F, 0C) morning.

We arrived in Chitral town nearly three weeks ago. We were already a few days behind schedule when we reached Chitral due to the protests over the bombing of the madrassa (religious school) near the Afghan border.

Tom McCarthy with the captured snow leopard (Snow Leopard Trust)

Once in Chitral, it was the same peaceful, pleasant village I am so used to. I felt very safe and two days later we were off for the park.

The entrance to Chitral Gol Park is a few thousand feet above town. Once at the top, it's about an hour's hike down into the valley that is the heart of the reserve.

Base camp for our work is a wildlife watcher's (someone who takes care of the park) house with quite decent facilities: two bedrooms, storage room, kitchen, and even two flush toilets!

Behind schedule, we did a quick day of recon for trap sites and then started putting out our snares.

Global warming was not helping us, and the unseasonably hot (71F,22C) days and lack of snow were keeping all the markhor (wild goats) and snow leopards high on the peaks in the back of the park - out of reach of our base camp.

Wobbly legs

The very knowledgeable wildlife watchers told us it could be December before the animals came down this year. We expected a long boring month waiting for their arrival.

If you know me well, you can guess how well that idea sat. After about nine days, I decided we needed to stretch ourselves a bit and put snares closer to the next watcher's hut, about two hours away and much nearer to the snow line.

Setting a snare (Tom McCarthy)
The team have set up snares along the snow leopards' likely path

Two days later, we caught our first leopard! Where? In the snare closet to our base camp - visible in fact from our porch. So much for extended traplines.

We had caught a healthy 78lb (35kg) female.

She was a little slow to come out of her sedated state and gave us fits as she struggled to get coordination back - her normal cliffy home is not a place we wanted to see her head for on wobbly legs.

After a tense several hours she was off to the peaks and her radio signal the next day showed she was moving well.

For the past several days, she has been hanging out in a cliffy area near camp, where I am guessing she has been gorging on a well-deserved markhor.

This morning, she left and headed up the valley. Soon we should start getting regular reports via satellite on her exact movements.

One done, four more cats to catch.

Tom McCarthy, project leader and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

The study is a joint collaboration between the Snow Leopard Trust, the Northwest Frontier Province Wildlife Department and WWF-Pakistan.



SEE ALSO
Snow leopards: Your questions
05 Feb 07 |  Technology
Snow leopard fitted with GPS tag
27 Nov 06 |  Technology

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific