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Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2007, 11:34 GMT
Answers to your snow leopards questions
Tom McCarthy with the captured snow leopard (Snow Leopard Trust)
Tom McCarthy answers your questions about his latest research
Over the past four months, a research project has been underway on the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders to learn more about the elusive snow leopard.

A team has been keeping BBC News website readers up-to-date with their efforts to attach Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) collars to the cats in a bid to shed light on the animals' movements.

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

How many snow leopards have had GPS collars placed on them to-date? Arshad Hussain, Karachi, Pakistan

The answer is one - Bayed-e-Kohsaar, the female we caught in November in Chitral Gol.

I did place a satellite collar on one snow leopard back in 1996, in Mongolia. However, the collar had no GPS capability of its own - it just sent a "ping" to passing satellites, which would calculate its position.

Despite that, we learned a great deal from this first attempt at hi-tech collars. It helped me understand why I was often unable to track the cats from the ground - they were easily losing me by moving 40 or 50km (25-30 miles) across the rugged mountains.

The new GPS collars should soon tell us much, much more.

How do the traps you use work, and what has been done to ensure that they don't harm the cats? Sriram Krishnan, Cape Town, South Africa

The traps we use are leg snares. They consist of a spring arm that throws a loop of cable up the leg of an animal that steps onto the hidden trigger.

We place a spring in the cable so that when an animal pulls against it, there is some give and less chance for injury. We also pad the cable, and we place a spacer that keeps it from tightening down too far.

Each snare we set is carefully inspected by the team and we think about what a cat would do when caught, and remove anything that the cat could injure itself on.

Are leg snares 100% safe? No, there is always a risk no matter how careful we are.

One of the things you have to weigh up when you plan your research is whether what you hope to learn is valuable enough in terms of conserving the species to be worth even a small risk to an individual snow leopard. We believe in this case we are doing the right thing.

Why do you think Bayed is hanging around your traps and camp so much rather than going off in search of a mate? Do you think she is curious about people? (Bayed has been snared three times since the start of the project) Liz Tymkiw, Philadelphia, USA

Bayed (Snow Leopard Trust)
Bayed was snared a total of three times

We have wondered about this ourselves. I think the likely scenario is that we just happened to place our study site right in the middle of her winter habitat - and she is not changing her normal movements just because she has visitors.

I am not sure she is really curious about people, so much as just tolerant of them and used to people moving around in the park.

Snow leopards actually live very close to humans much of the time and often move around them without being observed. They are just too secretive and well camouflaged.

How has the local population responded to your efforts and will they benefit from your actions? Aman Singh, Victoria, Canada

The Snow Leopard Trust is first and foremost a conservation organisation with the goal of saving snow leopards into the future. To do so, we strongly believe that gaining the participation of local people in conserving the cats is essential.

We have highly successful community-based conservation programmes that are focused on meeting the needs of the people as well as the cats.

In essence, we work with the herding communities who share the mountains with snow leopards and try to find ways to increase their income and raise their living standards.

As part of the programme the families we work with agree to help conserve snow leopards and their habitat.

In the area where our collaring study is going on, the communities are excited to see the conservation as well as research progress, and are very proud to be part of saving the cats.

With the problems of militancy in several adjoining areas to the Chitral Gol, are these animals under threat from explosives and combatants?

Map of Chitral Gol National Park

Landmines are an issue in neighbouring Afghanistan. Animals are also poached by combatants for food and to sell hides on the black market.

Obviously there is very little enforcement of environmental laws in areas where wars are being fought, so the animals and habitat can suffer dramatically.

My first thoughts on tagging are that ugly the collars destroy the sleek lines of the cats. To what extent has the team considered the aesthetic impact of the collars on a cat's ability to find a mate? And do you think the collars to disadvantage a cat in a fight (either with prey or with a rival cat). Polly, Hereford, UK

I agree completely with your assessment of the collars lack of aesthetic appeal - they are not attractive.

However, you and I are looking at it from a very human perspective, not from that of another snow leopard or potential mate. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't consider these potential impacts and then plan for them. And we do.

I doubt that another leopard, as a potential mate, would be put off by her neck attire. An amorous male is taking other cues from her that should hold his attention. One female snow leopard in Mongolia, which I fitted with a similar collar, bred successfully that year and produced three healthy cubs. That is only one incidence, but it confirms what we expected. We wouldn't want it any other way.

Snow leopard (Snow Leopard Trust)
How does the collar affect hunting and mating?

Size and bulk are more of a concern.

Cats like the snow leopard usually take prey with a killing bite to the throat, and a bulky "package" under the cat's neck could possibly make that more difficult to accomplish.

But evidence from this study and previous ones shows that snow leopards have little difficulty making kills of large wild sheep and goats when the cats have had similarly sized collars on. In fact, Bayed has made some very impressive kills of large markhor (wild goats). So she doesn't seem to be hampered by the collar in that regard.

There are literally thousands of past studies of wildlife using radio-collars and very rarely has it been shown that a properly fitted collar negatively impacts the animal wearing it.

I do research on lions and hyenas in Kenya, and I wanted to ask what kind of GPS collars you are using. I have considered using ones with satellite uplink, but had bad luck with earlier ones, and wondered if they had improved. Dr Laurence Frank, Kenya

Well, I wish I could tell you they are working perfectly, but that is not the case.

It seems there is substantial radio-interference in Central Asia that is drowning out the signal the collars are attempting to send the satellites. So the GPS data is not being received on a bi-weekly basis as we planned. But that doesn't mean we are beat.

We have two alternatives for getting the data back. The first is a hand-held receiver that picks up the signal being sent to the satellites. The trick with that is getting close enough at the time the signal is sent - every other Monday at 1500 to 1800 local time. Not an easy task with snow leopards in those mountains!

The second way we will be able to get all of the data is when the collar falls off about 12 months from now. Once the collar is off, it continues to send a location beacon that we can track from the ground. Once we pick the collar up, we can download all of the GPS locations that are stored permanently in the collar's memory chip.

Realistically, how many snow leopards are left, and how fragmented are the territories of the ones remaining? Cheryl Marabese, London, UK

We estimate there are only between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards remaining in the wild today, stretched across 2.25 million square kilometres of habitat in 12 countries.

Not many cats for such as large area, and its range is definitely fragmented.

The trail leading to base camp (Tom McCarthy/Snow Leopard Trust)
The snow leopards habitat is vast

But this is actually one of the reasons for the study we are doing. Very little is known about how far the cats travel, and if they cross what seems to us as "non-snow leopard" habitat.

When I studied snow leopards in Mongolia, I found that they often crossed large expanses (more than 45km) of open desert to reach the next mountain. So the impact of fragmentation today is hard to really understand until we learn more about the cat's basic ecology and movements.

Is a person in any danger if they encounter a snow leopard in the wild? Denys Mkhize, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I can say with much certainty the answer is NO. Humans travelling in snow leopard habitat are in no danger from these big cats.

Snow leopards have simply never been known to attack people. Even when they are cornered by herders who find them in their livestock corrals snow leopards do not try to attack.

I have captured many of the cats, and even when they are in a snare, they do not act aggressively towards me as I work to sedate them - they just try to avoid me.

I was wondering if you think the snow leopard are in any way is related to the mythical Tibetan Snow Lion? My parents talk much of this elusive creature, but I think they are mistaken and they are actually talking about a snow leopard. Dawa Tenzin, London, UK

Well, I am certainly no expert on Tibetan myth and culture, but I think it is plausible, if not likely, that the Tibetan snow lion stories may well come from the snow leopard.

After all, the Tibetans say the Snow Lion "has a beauty and dignity resulting from a body and mind that are synchronized. The Snow Lion has a youthful, vibrant energy of goodness and a natural sense of delight." That sounds a lot like a snow leopard to me!

Snow Leopard Diary
07 Feb 07 |  Technology
Snow leopard fitted with GPS tag
27 Nov 06 |  Technology

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