The Challenges of Tracking a Ghost Cat

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Katey Duffey, a researcher who shares the hardships and rewards of searching for snow leopards. Check out her bio and website at the end of the post!

Sitting on a mountaintop, feeling the chilly crisp air, my senses absorb the environment that I think of as my second home. Yet it couldn’t be any more different from the flat, cornfield-covered state of Ohio where I grew up and currently live. The region is almost eerily quiet except for the occasional clucking of a chukar partridge echoing from somewhere nearby, and seems barren and devoid of life. The only movement is the gentle sway of a tuft of brown grass clinging to its existence on the shallow rocky substrate between boulders. A cloudless blue sky appears to reach down and embrace the endless horizon as the earth sparkles below. This is the very definition of remote wilderness: a place where the environment is as dangerous as it is beautiful. It’s an environment with many risks and many challenges. While other mountaineers explore the peaks of mountains for sport or a personal goal, I have a different purpose….to find snow leopards.

view of feet and mountains

Overlooking a transect.

The snow leopard is quite difficult to study. There is still so much unknown about them and I often hear people ask why that is the case when snow leopards are such a charismatic animal. They should have no problem acquiring scientific attention. But they are solitary and elusive within their huge home ranges: 220km for males and 130km for females. Those who study them rarely, if ever, even glimpse one outside of a camera trap image. However, it’s their habitat that really makes this endangered big cat a challenge to monitor.

Snow leopard

Snow leopards are found in the mountains of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau at elevations ranging from 3,000 to 5,000m. Their range overlaps boundaries of 12 countries. The area is as remote as you can get for a field site and the rugged terrain makes possible survey areas inaccessible. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to my transects via a Russian Soviet era van, jeep or a motorbike. Some areas even require getting there by horse.

Katey in the snow picking up scat

Having fun collecting scat.

Once I’ve managed to access a site, I then begin to survey the area for signs of snow leopards: hiking, climbing, and wishing the golden eagles I see were large enough to ride, like the Great Eagles in Lord of the Rings. When I’m looking up the slope of a mountain to scout a route to survey for snow leopard signs, some terrain features stand out as the best potential places for tracks, scat, scrapes, and urine spray. These key features include rocky outcrops, cliffs, rock walls, steep slopes covered in thick scree (loose rocks), and narrow ledges. But the question that usually pops into my mind is: “Where is the most technical section that would be the biggest pain in the rear to get to?” Because that’s where I’m going to find snow leopard signs.

Valleys, draws, and saddles are other mountain features where signs can often be found, since snow leopards use those as a relatively easy path to patrol and leave their territorial marks. If I see a big, rocky outcrop on a super steep slope, I’ll use a nearby draw (a sloped indent in the mountain that travels from the base to the top) to hike up, and then cut across a less precarious way. Doing so saves energy, saves time, and more importantly is much safer than taking my chances with a rockslide or ice. If you get your leg caught by a falling boulder or get injured on ice, your field season is not going to end well.

Winter and early spring are the best seasons for tracking snow leopards. This is the time of year when the cats are more active as they mate and get ready to raise cubs. Snow helps to locate tracks and fresh scat, while frozen rivers become roads allowing deeper access into valleys.van stuck in the snow A bonus is that the snow makes hiking down slopes more fun, since you can carefully “ski” down and will also have a softer landing if you humiliate yourself with an ill-placed step. However, in places with deep snow that comes up past your knees or to your waist, you become envious of the tracks of a cat with snowshoe-like paws. Deep snow is a problem for field vehicles as well and often turns into a delay that cuts into precious, limited daylight hiking time.

While staying in snow leopard country during winter seasons, my team stays in either our own ger* or with host families. There is no plumbing, no electricity (except what we can get from a car battery), and no Wi-Fi. I’m usually with maybe one other person who speaks English. Add being immersed in a traditional culture completely different from that of most “westerners”, and the thought of doing this type of work seems almost alien. The job can be lonely, despite being around many locals during home visits. Living conditions include exposure to dirt from livestock, unpasteurized dairy and raw meat contaminating surfaces in homes. On top of that, the ventilation in homes is poor, so you’re constantly trying not to choke on smoke, while in close quarters with strangers who are often ill. In other words, your immune system gets a workout!

Another challenge of winter fieldwork in snow leopard country is the extreme cold. Average daytime temperatures range between -15˚ and -30˚ Celsius. While hiking transects, it is important to wear warm, breathable layers. The lowest temperature I experienced was a nighttime temperature of -50˚ Celsius (with added wind chill)! If you can’t fathom what that feels like, imagine an industrial freezer filled with dry ice.

Needless to say, toilet trips outside are avoided as much as possible (This is when being a woman is quite inconvenient.) The cold also makes camp life a bit more difficult. Everything is frozen, including the firewood and livestock dung. Your water comes from boiled snow or ice and food needs to be set near the stove to thaw. While waiting for that to happen, I usually spend some time doing some warm-up exercises to get the circulation going in my frozen digits.

human hand beside a snow leopard print

The climate and environment are treacherous, the landscape pretty much looks the same in all directions, wildlife is not often seen, and I frequently question if I even belong out there. However, it’s those challenges that drew me to this work, and they give me a sense of purpose. Rewards come in many different forms. On my last trip in March, a teammate and I were rewarded by a glimpse of a ghost cat leaping across boulders before disappearing. That sight in and of itself was more than enough reason to endure the hardships (or abuse) of this remote fieldwork.

KateyKatey is from Canton, Ohio and has a MA in Zoology from Miami University. She currently works as an independent researcher and collaborates with various partner organizations. Her research focuses on the effects of livestock depredation by snow leopards, and the potential for transmission of zoonoses from livestock to snow leopards. Although her work has been in western Mongolia, she is always looking for opportunities to expand her projects to other countries in the snow leopard range or work with other carnivores. You can follow her on Twitter at @UnciaKate, and learn more about her work from her blog https://kateyduffey.wordpress.com/ 

*A note from Dispatches: a ger is a dome- shaped traditional home of nomadic herders (also referred to as a yurt).

Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest poster Joseph Drake, a PhD student from the University of Massachusetts, who tells a nerve-wracking story about his time doing fieldwork on a military base in the Sonoran Desert.

I brought the truck to a gravelly sliding stop.  A wave of dust washed past the truck and filled our open windows with fine sediment.  When the dust and coughing settled, I got out of the truck, stepped gingerly on the 2-track “road” the military had bladed through this section of desert and looked at what lay before me. Tanks to the left of me, bombs to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you. Wait, that’s not how the song goes. But it does do a fairly good job of describing our precarious situation.

Tanks to the left…

…and bombs to the right.

Some background: I worked for several years in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, working sometimes on United States Bureau of Land Management land, but mostly in the vast emptiness of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.  This active military bombing and live munitions training ground is one of the biggest chunks of “untouched” Sonoran Desert.  Containing desert mountains, sand dunes, and many of the most interesting desert habitats in between, this parcel of land stretches for over 1.5 million acres.  It may be a toss-up, but that is about the size of the state of Delaware.  Having such a large undeveloped area means that it is home to lots of different species of wildlife, and is one of the last refuges of the endangered Sonoran Desert Pronghorn.

Surveying the site from the air to see which water sites needed to be visited on foot.

It was a surprise to me to learn that military lands often have some of the best habitat available for plant and wildlife management.  When I stopped to think about it though, it made sense.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has over 400 installations in the US with about 25 million acres.  Many, if not most, of these acres are undeveloped.  That means that apart from military operations, these areas go mainly untouched, and because of the country’s resource protection laws (which the military abides by), are fairly well managed.  Security and safety reasons mean that these large swaths of land have not felt the pressure of habitat-loss; some 300 U.S. endangered or threatened species make DoD lands their home, and the military helps take care of them.

Back to the story:  I was looking at a small marker bomb sitting in the road way, a new bit of UXO (unexploded ordinance).  It was only a small bomb, used in training runs to show how well the pilot hit his mark, but since the sighting towers had to be able to see where it hit, there was still enough explosive to tear the front end of the truck apart and send the diesel engine block into my chest cavity.  That may sounds like an exaggeration, but that is how the managers on the range described it to me and I didn’t want to find out if they were right.

You see all kinds of life at desert watering holes…

We had been granted access to this live-fire part of the range, a rare treat for our research team.  We were trying to reach some of the most remote desert water sites to study their water quality and biodiversity – with the ultimate goal of creating better man-made water sites for desert wildlife. We were studying the differences in construction and ecology at natural and man-made “guzzlers” to better serve not only large game species, such as bighorn sheep, but also small creatures like Sonoran Desert Toads and dragonflies.

Like I said, we wanted to get there and we only had a small window to get through this section of the desert before the range opened back up for live fire exercises.  To go off road in this section was strictly forbidden; even if it weren’t, it would be extremely dangerous. The small bomb before us had many siblings in the sand and brush around us.  Many of these siblings were much larger than the one we could see.  And just like with people, age and exposure to the elements makes bombs much more persnickety.  We had about 4 inches of clearance between the bottom of the truck and the item.   A decision had to be made: either turn around and race for the last staging area, which we could get to just within our time window, or drive over the thing to get to the end of the road and hope for the best.

Upon reflection, I made the wrong decision that day: I crept the truck along until we silently (as silent as the idle speed of a diesel can be) glided over the top of the marker bomb.  I don’t think I breathed during the entire time it took to painstakingly thread our 4WD differentials, which hung low on the less-than-even road, around the obstacle.  Finally I was able to breathe as my research partner Jordan waved an all clear from a safe distance down the road.  I got GPS coordinates so the military could remove the bomb and we were on our way!

We were eventually able to collect some great data at those water sites, but it could have gone poorly.  Fieldwork on the Air Force Range was often a trade-off between safety and results. Our supervisor probably would have had an aneurism if she had known about many of our choices, and rightfully so.  At times the temperatures were above 120 °F with 70% humidity, making it literally dangerous just to walk for longer than a mile.  Spiny plants and toothy reptiles abounded and rugged terrain was always trying to destroy our ankles.  We had encounters with military security, Border Patrol, and the infamous drug smugglers of the area.

We weren’t the only ones facing the problem of spiny plants…

Despite all of it, though, the desert became my adopted home: I really love the place. I care deeply about the people, plants, and animals. I could tell many more stories and hopefully I will down the road, but right now I have to get back to chasing some wildlife.

Chasing some desert dragonflies…

Joe Drake is a recovering field biologist. A member of several professional  scientific societies, he is interested in spatial ecology, desert  ecology, wildlife conservation, and science outreach/communication.  When he isn’t studying or working, you can find him in the woods, on  the river, or in his workshop; he loves home brewing, backpacking,  fishing, writing, and photography. Before he returned to school, Joe worked for various federal agencies and universities across the Western U.S. (living out of the back of his beat-up Ford Ranger) and  internationally in the “bio-tech circuit” for 4 years.  The West’s wilderness stole his heart before he returned to school to get his  M.S. at Texas Tech University, and he has continued on to the University of Massachusetts where he is working towards his Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Chris Sutherland.  He is just about to embark on a new field project in the Scottish Highlands, and will be blogging and tweeting about the experience as he goes.  Keep  up to date with his work or get in touch at  https://secretlifeofafieldbiologist.wordpress.com/.