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Last Updated: Monday, 27 November 2006, 23:31 GMT
Snow leopard fitted with GPS tag
By Rebecca Morelle
BBC News

Snow leopard (Snow Leopard Trust)
The collar works out the cat's position several times a day
The habits of the most elusive of the big cats, the snow leopard, may no longer remain such a mystery.

For the first time, a team has fitted a snow leopard with a Global Positioning System (GPS) collar to track the secretive creature's movements.

The 35kg (75lb) female was captured on the Purdum Mali ridge in Pakistan.

Over the next few months, the international team aims to fit four more snow leopards with the high-tech collars.

Thanks to their solitary nature, the steep, rocky terrain they inhabit, and their twilight activity, snow leopards are extremely difficult to study, says Ashley Spearing, who is about to join the research team out in the Chitral Gol National Park in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders.

And because of this, he says, much of the information on their movements and habitat use is based on anecdote, extrapolation or older research using less-accurate radio collars.

Snow Leopard (Ashley Spearing)
Between 3,500-7,000 snow leopards estimated in wild
Live in high, rugged mountains of central Asia
Shy, elusive and solitary animals
Home-range is unknown
In captivity, live up to 21 years
Adults weigh between 35-55kg, and stand about 60cm tall
Pale dense fur covered in unique dark spots for camouflage
Female snow leopards mate every other year
Usually 2-3 cubs born in litter
GPS technology, the researchers believe, will give them a wealth of data they can mine.

Mr Spearing said: "This study is the first time GPS technology has been used to track snow leopards. It is going to give us very accurate, detailed knowledge of the size of the cats' home range and the sort of day-to-day movements they make."

The collars, when fitted, use GPS to pin-point the exact position of the cats several times a day. This information is then beamed to researchers' inboxes via the US-French Argos-satellite data-relay system.

It keeps a close-watch of where the animals are moving, resting or sleeping.

But this is the easy part - capturing the animals to get at this data is more difficult.

As the animals move around their home ranges, they often travel along ridgeways and cliff bases, marking their route to warn off other animals.

"We use those marking sites to place non-invasive foot snares," said Mr Spearing. "They also contain a radio-device so when it is triggered, it sends a signal to let us know."

Each morning, working in temperatures of -5C to -20C, the team sets off at daylight from their base-camp, to check each of the 15 snares, in total covering about 10-13km (6-8 miles) and climbing 600-900m (2,000-3,000ft).

'In Memory of the Mountains'

Project leader Tom McCarthy, who is the conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust, describes it as some of the steepest terrain he has ever worked in.

Once an animal has been snared, it is anaesthetised, its age, sex, size and weight assessed, and then the radio collar is fitted, before the animal is released.

The fact the team has captured a snow leopard so early on in the project has given the researchers hope that they will be able to collar their target of five cats.

Map of Chitral Gol National Park

And the signal from the tagged cat, called Bayad-e-Kohsaar, which in Urdu means In Memory of the Mountains, has already revealed where and when she has moved since being fitted with the collar.

The collar will stay attached to the animal for 14 months before it drops off.

Brad Rutherford, director of the Snow Leopard Trust, says the data gained from the project will be vital for conservation of the cat.

It is thought that between 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild, in the high mountains of Central Asia, but they are under threat.

Data discrepancy

They have been on the IUCN's Red List of endangered species since 1972, at risk from habitat fragmentation, depletion of prey, hunting for pelt and bone, and retaliation killings from livestock herders.

Mr Rutherford said: "The biggest thing this project will tell us is how much space a snow leopard needs.

"And you would think in 2006 that we would have that answer, but unfortunately, because the cats are so elusive, we don't. Estimates range between 65 sq km and 1,000 sq km.

"You cannot have an appropriately sized protected area with that kind of discrepancy."

He adds the study will also give important secondary data, such as whether the cats avoid human settlements and roads, or cluster around livestock areas.

"All of this information will help us to craft better conservation efforts on the ground," he says.

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

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