Tea-Time with Leopards

Next time you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea, and if it happens to be a tea from India, know there is a very good chance that leopards at one time or another may have inhabited the tea garden where the leaves were harvested. Of course a literal tea-time with leopards is never recommended, but the reality is they are a very common resident of many tea gardens in the country.

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A recent study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) showed that leopards are partial to tea gardens in north-eastern India, but their presence does not necessarily mean conflicts with people. The study, a collaboration between the WCS, the National Centre for Biological Sciences-India, Foundation of Ecological Research Advocacy and Learning, and the West Bengal Forest Department, was done in highly populated areas that included tea gardens and forested area in the West Bengal state. The approximate 600 km area is part of the “East-Himalayan” biodiversity hot spot which includes small protected areas along with tea gardens, villages and agricultural fields. The study showed that leopards will avoid highly dense populated areas, but are partial to tea gardens as they provide ideal vegetation cover. Out of the four large cats in India which include tigers, lions and snow leopards, the leopard is the most adaptable and able to live in protected forests as well as on the edge of urban areas overlapping with humans.

The study mapped more than a 170 locations where people were injured by leopards and interviewed approximately 90 of those injured between 2009 and 2016. More than 350 leopard-human encounters were reported during this period, with five resulting in human fatalities.” No significant relationship was found between the probability of attack and probability of habitat-use by leopards.  Researchers noted that in the case of a rare attack it was accidental or defensive rather than predatory resulting in only minor injuries. Attacks were also likely to occur during the day, while people were working and in areas where the tea shrubs were shorter, denser and the land was relatively flat. The majority of the attacks happened between January and May when large sections of the gardens were disturbed for maintenance like pruning of tea bushes and irrigation.

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Leopard is scavenging on a dead gaur, a species of wild cattle. Credit: Kalyan Varma Image Phys.org

Like elsewhere in the world the study highlights the problems when human dominated spaces are shared with large predators like leopards. It identified particular hotspots of “conflict” and confirmed the importance of testing new methods to reduce human-leopard conflict. An early warning system, like making loud noises, alerting the animals to the presence of humans would provide enough time for them to move away, an approach that has already worked well in other areas.

In Assam, India’s northeast area, tea companies have already begun to implement practices to reduce conflict between humans and elephants, as well as prevent the loss of crops in a non-violent manner. Recognizing that as more habitat is lost due to humans wildlife will continue to seek refuge in the tea gardens and, by using fencing, corridors and specially built tiny reserves it will save the lives of both wildlife and people.

In a place where leopards have become “part of the tea garden habitat” tea estates are embracing policies and taking steps that promote co-existence. Many are certified by the Rainforest Alliance and abide by the Sustainable Agriculture Network which help to ensure that no wild animals were harmed or killed in the tea gardens.

Cost of Doing Business

Some would say wildlife is priceless, but do the same animals still hold ‘value’ when deemed an inconvenience or in the way of human progress? Take predators for example, who seem to become scapegoats or expendable when their interests and needs conflict with ours. Do we on a subconscious level see them as direct competition for space, food and resources? Can we co-exist with them and share or must we, by our actions or lack of, eliminate the competition?

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Whatever the reason they become one of two things – the forgotten victims, or in some cases the ‘poster animal’ for the cause helping to create awareness and positive change. We now know that everything in our environment is connected and all species including predators are vital for helping maintain a healthy balanced Eco-system. Organizations, researchers and even the average citizen are working harder than ever to ensure that these animals are given a voice and a chance to co-exist despite our continued pressure upon the natural world and their habitat. Along with the encouraging stories of progress we have made, are there cases in which the loss of wildlife is simply another cost of doing business?

A few years ago when I was writing the story about an ocelot who was photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains outside of Tuscon Arizona I started reading up on how a Canadian mining company HudBay Minerals Inc. was planning on building the Rosemont Mine, the third largest open-pit copper mine in the U.S., in the same area where the ocelot was discovered and where later the now famous jaguar El Jefe would be photographed. The discovery of the endangered ocelot would prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-evaluate their original report (biological opinion) on the impact of the mine. Conservationists said that there would be no way species like the ocelot and jaguar could survive, or co-exist if their habitat was destroyed by the mine.

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Male ocelot, photographed on May 14, is the fifth to be documented in Arizona over the past five years.

Fish and Wildlife Services would later issue their final biological opinion coming to the conclusion that the mine would cause “significant adverse impacts on many of the species” threatening not only predators but also endangered birds and fish. They went on to say that despite this, the number of measures that would be put in place by the mining company, such as the hiring of biologist to monitor effects on wildlife and creating permanent protected areas of conservation lands, it would “not jeopardize the continued existence of any of the 13 affected listed species” or hamper recovery of species like the jaguar despite destroying part of their habitat.

There has been mixed messages among the agencies tasked with reviewing the mine. An EPA report stated that the mine would have adverse consequences on the water system as well as several endangered species including fish, frogs and birds that reside near local streams. The Army corps of Engineers concluded that any measures taken would not fully make up for the “unavoidable adverse” impact of the mine even with appropriate measures taken. The U.S. Forest Service said that due to the 1872 Mining Law, which is still applicable today, the project cannot be denied.

Government agencies weren’t the only ones in disagreement with each other on the mine and, the value of a single jaguar seemed to be something that divided wildcat conservation groups. Panthera’s CEO, and leading expert on jaguars, Alan Rabinowitz wrote back in 2010 that the occasional cat crossing the border from Mexico does not mean they have established territory or that there is even suitable jaguar habitat left in the U.S. Southwest. His feelings remained the same and he told The Star that other reasons should be found to save the landscape especially when resources are needed elsewhere where the data supports evidence of concrete jaguar recovery. Wildcat researchers Aletris Neils and Chris Bugbee who had been studying El Jefe are on the other side and disagreed saying that every single jaguar was important and that the focus should be on recovery of the species to its former range. They believe jaguars can be brought back to the area and that the public must weigh in on the decision.

In a federally financed three-year study by the University of Arizona study tracing the paths of jaguars and ocelot across Southern Arizona, researchers placed remote cameras at 250 sites across 16 mountain ranges capturing photos of a jaguar, ocelot, bobcat and mountain lion at two sites in the northern Santa Ritas. Both times, all four species were photographed within a 24-hour period, the researchers said. Melanie Culver, the study’s principal investigator and Susan Malusa, the study’s project manager told Tucson online that the habitat in the Santa Rita’s should be protected but they could not fully comment on the proposed mine as it wasn’t part of their study. Malusa said it would change things but they weren’t able to predict how.

David Chambers, an environmental consultant, told The Star that there was no definite answer as to whether the mine was “good or bad and, that it comes down to determining if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental and social costs.” Jessica Moreno of Sky Island Alliance said that not everyone cares about a jaguar named El Jefe. The critical issue of the water permits may be the best way stop the mine.

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El Jefe in 2014 – Image USFWS – As of early 2017 it has been about a year since El Jefe has been seen leading to speculations that something has happened to him or he has returned to Mexico.

Here are a few things to think about. Copper is in everyday items that we use from cars to cellphones, what are we wiling to give up or eliminate from our lives in order to protect our environment and wildlife? Do we invest more heavily in the technology to recycle and reuse existing copper or are we forever stuck having to mine for it and risk diminishing precious Eco-systems for materials like copper? As the human population grows demand for copper and other materials will increase and if it must be mined, who determines where the copper comes from? Kathy Arnold, Rosemont’s director of environment said in the article from The Star that if the demand for copper continues to grow it will have to come from somewhere and with about “30 percent of what we need being imported another country pays the environmental price for our consumption”. She goes on to say that it’s better to have someone like her watching out for the environment than in places where there are less or no proper controls.

What can be expected with a mile-wide, half-mile deep open-pit mine that is set to border the Santa Rita Mountains in the Coronado National Forest? It would bury 3,000 acres of surrounding public land generating more than a billion tons (1.25 billion tons) of toxic mine waste that will be dumped into 700-foot high “earthforms” and, it is expected to require “6,000 acre-feet of water per year”. It is clear that the mine will disturb, stress, disrupt and possibly become an additional form of mortality for wildlife in addition to the impact it would have on the environment, water supply and local people.

According to Rosemont Mine Truth, who continues to monitor this highly controversial project, there is a “possibility that HudBay could mine up to an additional 591 million tons of copper-bearing rock after mining in the pit is completed” further impacting the landscape, threatened and endangered species, water resources and ecotourism.  As it stands now a Clean Water Act permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, final approval from the Coronado National Forest are required before construction could begin. A final decision is expected soon.

For updates and details on the mine’s progress, please head over to Rosemont Mine Truth on Facebook.

The Cost of Doing Business continues looking at few other projects elsewhere that are, or have the potential to impact the big cats and wildlife.

Building Walls

Building border walls is not a new concept but the impact they have tends to focus on the human element, of how the walls or fences will be used to keep people out, rather than the toll they take on the environment and wildlife. The first time I was introduced to how fences impact wildlife was many years ago while reading Cry of the Khalahari, which touches on Botswana’s veterinary fences that were erected to “stop the spread foot and mouth disease to cattle” and to meet strict EU regulations for the beef trade. The impact these fences had on wildlife was undeniable and brutal “many wild animals including giraffe, elephant, zebra and many species of antelope, became ensnared, cut off from migratory routes and from vital resources.” In short, many species perished as a direct or indirect result of the fences.

Botswana wasn’t the only country to erect fences for the purpose of protecting livestock, Australia put up a fence in the 1950’s to keep sheep safe from predators like dingos and wild dogs. The fence didn’t work out exactly as planned and it ended up also protecting kangaroos which turned out to be more of a problem for sheep due to the fact that they competed with them for pasture.

More recently the effects of the anti-refugee wall between Slovenia and Croatia was studied. The report showed how the barrier is hurting gray wolves, Eurasian lynx as well as possibly threatening brown bears. Suggestions to help alleviate the pressure at the fences includes: using new alternative forms of high-tech monitoring methods that would allow selected sections of a border to remain unfenced while still providing security; more carefully thought out fence alignment that would reduce it effects; and, design that minimizes the chance of wildlife entanglement and death similar to border fencing that has been “retrofitted between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to enable the saiga antelope to pass between the two nations.”

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Habitat fragmentation caused by the fence interrupts gene flow and threatens the already small population of Eurasian Lynx – Image Wikipedia

While the report recognizes that many fences are permanent, it says the role of conservationists is critical and that our knowledge and understanding about border fences and their effect on wildlife needs to be improved. Interestingly it was found that in some cases the fences, “may unintentionally actually help conservation by preventing animals from roaming into countries with low degrees of law enforcement, by creating well-guarded spaces where human impact is minimal and by preventing the spread of wildlife diseases.”

Germany’s Cold War barriers of fences and walls that separated East and West later became an accidental nature preserve and is now part of a green belt that runs through central and eastern Europe. In China the Great Wall was found to have no major effect on wildlife as it was not one solid piece of construction but rather consisted of a series of different builds including mounds of pounded earth which later became degraded from use. However, in specific areas where the wall is truly solid a team of Chinese scientists, who conducted a study of plant species on both sides, confirmed that in these areas it was indeed a physical barrier to gene flow.

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Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall – Via Northern Jaguar Project – Photo by Jay J. Johnson-Castro, Sr.

Connectivity and wildlife is a hot topic these days when it come to urban planning and building roads and freeways, but it is very unlikely that an extension of a wall at at the U.S.-Mexico border would take into account concerns for wildlife, habitat fragmentation, or gene flow for endangered species like the jaguar.  While humans can and will generally find ways around walls, wildlife from snakes and frogs to jaguars, pumas, bob cats and big horn sheep will not be able to move freely. They will be forced to adapt to smaller territories which will ultimately prove deadly to them especially when their access to food, mates and water, is cut off.

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Mountain lion at border wall U.S. Border Patrol – Image Northern Jaguar Project

In 2006 the Secure Fence Act, which was responsible for the 1,000 kilometers of impenetrable barrier along the Mexico–U.S. border, had environmental laws waived for its construction. The impact of these walls on wildlife has been studied along with the effects it has had on the highly endangered ocelot. The solid metal and concrete fence further fragments ocelot habitat and kept the small population in Texas separate from the larger and more genetically diverse population in northern Mexico. Even though there were about 100 openings incorporated in the fence for wildlife they were much to small to allow larger animals like bobcats or coyotes through.

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Ocelot

Wildlife biologist Mitch Sternberg told Nature that “bobcats don’t go out looking for holes in fences as they travel back and forth through brushy habitats. Overall, wildlife connectivity does not exist in these sectors anymore.” It was also noted that there were major shifts in territory due the construction for the 20 bobcats that had been collared and studied. Some simply abandoned their home range and others became trapped on one side of the wall and were eventually killed on highways while looking for new territory.

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Bobcat at US-Mexico wall. Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

In 2014 a report was released that stated the fence had little to no impact on human travel and most native species, however it had a great impact on pumas and coatis. While pumas had greater capability to roam farther in search of territory the fence meant there were less of them. With regards to coatis who are unable to move home ranges easily, researchers concluded that this could lead to a “possible collapse in their populations”. It also pointed to the fact that any impact the wall had on the behavior and populations of pumas and coatis could have serious implications for those species with whom they interact.

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Coati – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

It is estimated that the border wall has the potential to impact 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory bird, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands.

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Puma – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

El Jefe, the male jaguar who caused a stir of excitement when captured on trail camera in  2016 along the Arizona side of the border, would undoubtedly be cut off from any females attempting to come from Mexico. Even though a possible new jaguar has been photographed in the U.S. it is not considered enough to help re-establish the species. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity told EcoWatch that “walls don’t stop people from crossing the border, but Trump’s plan would end any chance of recovery for endangered jaguars, ocelots and wolves in the border region.”

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El Jefe, is believed to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before making his home in Arizona. (Conservation CATalyst/Center for Biological Diversity)

In December 2016 a conservation plan was released for the jaguar, a species that was systematically exterminated in its former historical habitat, by the USFWS in which they hoped to work more closely with Mexico. The plan, which is supposed to “make it easier for agencies and organizations in the U.S. and Mexico to align their efforts at restoring jaguar habitat along the border” includes keeping corridors intact so the cats can move back and forth freely. The proposed wall along the entire 2,000 mile border with Mexico would essentially be the end to the jaguars recovery in America. It would also be an ecological disaster—ripping populations and fragile ecosystems apart. Louise Misztal, biologist and executive director of conservation non-profit Sky Island Alliance in Arizona tells Motherboard that “wide-ranging mammals like mountain lions, bears, jaguars, ocelots, need to be moving between these different mountain ranges to get to food resources and water.”

Saving predators like jaguars go beyond a feel good story about bringing an endangered species back from the brink – they like other apex predators are invaluable in their ability to help regulate, naturally, other species and the ecosystem in which they reside. When apex predators disappear from the landscape trophic cascades, the top-down regulation of ecosystems by predators which is an essential aspect of ecosystem function and well-being, are disrupted.

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Camera trap data from Arizona found that the wall did not prevent illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States, but wholly stopped wildlife movement. Toad looking through the metal bars of part of the existing border wall. Credit: Anonymous. Image –  Seeker by Dan Millis

A number of groups and organizations have released statements opposing the proposed wall including the National Wildlife Federation and Panthera. Jesse Lasky, an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University told Live Science that “If Trump’s wall is built, it could push endangered animals and native animals with small habitats over the edge…and If the populations on the border start disappearing, the functioning of these ecosystems could be reduced.” Bryan Bird, director of the Southwest Program for Defenders of Wildlife tells Seeker that “fences are only appropriate directly adjacent to urban areas and should not be used in wildlife corridors or other ecologically sensitive areas” and, alternative monitoring devices, which minimize the impact on wildlife, such as “virtual high-tech fencing options like unmanned aerial vehicles, motion-sensors, laser barriers and infrared cameras ” should be employed to provide security.

In addition to what the wall means for wildlife, the construction of it will have a further impact on human health and the planet as it has the potential to release about “2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

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The U.S.-Mexico border is the largest human construction that has been made to divide two countries since the great wall of china.” US-Mexico wall arial – Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

It is widely accepted that it is a negative prognosis for wildlife and ecosystems when man-made barriers are introduced, unfortunately even with this knowledge border walls and fences are on the rise. Wildlife at the current U.S.-Mexico border wall has been documented acting confused and stressed due to their daily routines being disrupted and, without further environmental impact studies, or incorporating designs in fences that allow animals to move through, researchers will not know the extent of damage or long-term implications. Along with undoing decades of conservation efforts and work any new fences will increase the number of species at risk by further isolating them on either side, pushing wildlife like the jaguar and ocelot even more precariously close to extinction while degrading our ecosystems in the process.

Winter Stroll

About a week ago I posted a clip of this video on Instagram but thought it was just too beautiful not to share in its entirety. It was taken in 2013 in Northern Ontario by YouTube user ReelEdgeProductions on a Sunday afternoon as they were BBQ’ing on their back deck. What a privilege to see these amazing cats causally taking a winter stroll through your backyard.

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is a medium-sized cat characterized by its long ear tufts, flared facial ruff, and short, bobbed tail with a black tip, unusually large paws that act like snowshoes in very deep snow, thick fur and long legs, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs. Lynx are generally found in moist, boreal forests that have cold, snowy winters and a high density of their favorite prey: the snowshoe hare. The southern portion of their range historically extended into the US into the northern Rocky Mountains/Cascades, southern Rockies, Great Lakes states and the Northeast.

Lynx mate during the winter and the females give birth once a year. Lynx ARE NOT considered species at risk in Canada and sadly are killed for their fur pelts, which occurs in 10 of 12 range provinces and territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador). Lynx harvest is prohibited in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Lynx were extirpated from Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s.

In the US they are listed under Endangered Species Act and can no longer be legally trapped in the lower 48 states. However, they have not fully recovered from population declines, and remain at serious risk. Primary sources of mortality to Lynx are starvation, predation, and human-related causes, as well as habitat loss to Boreal forests (this includes logging, road-building and high traffic volume, housing developments, resource extraction such as oil drilling and mining, and winter recreation).

Climate Change is also a threat as the deep snow, that Lynx have an advantage over other predators in, becomes less predictable.

Ghost of the Mountain

Panthera uncia, or the Snow Leopard, is a gorgeous and rare cat that lives in the mountains of Central Asia. I have long been fascinated with these mysterious and other worldly cats who seem to exude a sense of intangible wisdom and calm, perhaps this is a direct result of having evolved to live in such a harsh and remote environment. The mysterious quality is well earned as they are very hard to photograph and study. In fact, most of the photos taken of Snow Leopards are done with strategically placed camera traps, making images like the one by wildlife photographer Steve Winter, extremely breathtaking and precious.

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One of the most elusive of the big cats & rarest photographed – Image Steve Winter

Snow Leopards are known for their mystical beauty and elusive nature, and because of this they have been called the Ghost of the Mountains.  Part of their allure is their fur, which is luxuriously beautiful and practical at keeping them perfectly warm and camouflaged  in the rugged and unforgiving landscape in which they live and hunt. While Snow Leopards are found in 12 countries approximately 60% of the cats habitat can primarily be found in China.

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The snow leopard has white, yellowish and smoky grey speckled fur with dark-grey to black spots and rosettes. Image – Snow Leopard Trust

As with all cats they have physical characteristics that suit their environment, and their features do more than present a pretty picture, they serve a purpose. The round short ears help reduce heat loss and the wide and short nasal cavity heat the chilled outside air before reaching the lungs. “In the Himalayas, they are usually found between 3,000 and 5,400 meters above sea level. In Mongolia and Russia, these cats are found at lower altitudes of 1000 meters. At the Snow Leopard’s typical elevation, the climate is cold and dry, and only grasses and small shrubs can grow on the steep mountain slopes.”

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Snow leopards prefer the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines. Image –  Steve Tracy, Courtesy of the Snow Leopard Trust

Other physical features that make Snow Leopards suited for its extreme environment include: extra big paws that act like snow shoes; a long tail that is used for balance and also keeping warm on cold nights; short front limbs and long back limbs which are used to help the cat propel itself up to 30 feet at once and, very strong chest muscles to help it climb mountains for prey.

Since Snow Leopards are hard to study researchers have relied on camera trap technology which has helped them understand more about the cats than ever before. However, their ghost like presence has still made it impossible to determine exactly how many exist and, estimates have put this endangered cat at only 3,500 – 7,000 individuals. Snow Leopards are listed on CITES Appendix I which offers the highest level of protection and means all international trade that is primarily for commercial purposes is prohibited. They are also legally protected from hunting by national legislation across most of its 12 range states and, in 2009 Afghanistan gave the cats legal protection by listing the species on the country’s first Protected Species List.

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The Snow Leopard Trust has documented one cat who walked 27 miles in just one night.

While Snow Leopards tend to be ‘crepuscular’, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk their behavior has noted to be influenced by the presence of humans. It has been found that were there is less human population they are active in the daytime and when there are more people nearby their territory, they become ‘nocturnal’ or active at night.

The cats communicate over vast distances either by marking, which is done by scraping the ground, or spraying urine on ridges and cliffs along the mountains. Solitary animals, once mating season is over the male and female part ways leaving her to raise the cubs until they reach about 2 years old at which time the cubs will leave to look for their own territory. A Snow Leopards territory can be hundreds of square km and overlap but, researchers believe that the amount of space each cat needs may differ between the landscapes and availability of prey.

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Snow Leopards from the Zurich Zoo – Image Flickr

While Snow Leopards can purr, mew, hiss and growl they cannot roar instead, they are known to make a puffing sound called a ‘chuff’ just like Tigers. The ability to roar does not exist in Snow Leopards due to the physiology of their throat, or structure of the hyoid bone.  To hear what the chuffing sounds like check out this video of a Snow Leopard from Big Cat Rescue.

What is also important to note is that these cats are not aggressive towards humans and, there has never been a confirmed Snow Leopard attack on a human being. Instead they have a reputation for running away rather than defending themselves if disturbed. Like all cats, they may however become aggressive during an encounter between two males or if a female’s cubs are being threatened.

While Snow Leopards may not be the most photographed of the big cats, never before seen footage has been released in time to celebrate International Snow Leopard Day which is marked today October 23. The WWF has released photos and video to coincide with a report that highlights the fragile connections between Snow Leopards, People, Water And The Global Climate. They say that a third of the cats habitat is at risk from climate change.  Images in this video were taken in Nepal and Mongolia.

As with all our big cats human activity is a major threat to the survival of this species, this includes poaching for their fur, retaliatory killings for livestock loss, loss of habitat and prey, mining activities and lack of resources to protect the cats. If that wasn’t enough, climate change will now add another immediate threat to the survival of Snow Leopards. WWF-UK tells International Business Times that “The Himalayas region will face a major crisis if we choose to ignore climate change. Not only do we risk losing majestic species such as the snow leopard, but hundreds of millions of people who rely on water flowing from these mountains may be affected.”

The leading organization on these cats the Snow Leopard Trust, founded in 1981, is at the forefront working diligently to save them while offering ways for people to help Snow Leopards by either donating, volunteering, shopping or becoming a partner. They also have a wealth of resources about their work and research available online including their report on how Climate Change could speed up the Snow Leopards demise.

The Snow Leopard Trust has put together this wonderful two-part infographic fact sheet which can be shared and downloaded from their site, it is a great educational tool to inform others of this amazing cats plight and help them understand why they are worth saving.

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