Studying a species you’re not sure exists

This week on the blog, we are happy to have Charlotte Hacker, a PhD student at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, who shares her adventures of studying the elusive snow leopard on the Tibetan Plateau of China. For more information about Charlotte, check out her bio at the end of the post!

I have a confession to make…

But first, some background. I’m a noninvasive conservation geneticist using DNA extracted from snow leopard scat to answer questions about the diet, distribution, abundance, density, and landscape connectivity of these animals, among other things. I predominantly focus on populations of snow leopards living on the Tibetan Plateau of China. I’ve been fortunate to establish collaborative projects with other scientists at an incredible research institute in Beijing which have facilitated opportunities for my favorite part of research – fieldwork. 

Charlotte Hacker in snow leopard habitat collecting carnivore scat samples. Photo credit: Rou Bao

I’ve been back and forth between the United States and China since 2017. I’ve sampled hundreds of kilometers of transects, I’ve picked up approximately 600 carnivore scat samples, and I’ve extracted DNA from over 1,500 samples. I’ve met and interviewed dozens of local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I’ve spent hours staring out the window of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve identified individual snow leopards based on their genetic profile, determined their sex, and figured out what they ate. I’ve published a handful of peer-reviewed papers and technical reports. I’m one year out from getting my doctorate, which is basically a PhD in snow leopards.

The big secret? I’ve never seen a live one in the wild.

In my defense, there’s good reason for that. There are reasons why there’s still so much we don’t know about snow leopards. They are well camouflaged and elusive. They live at low densities and at high altitudes in terrain that can be inhospitable to humans.

One incredible advantage of my research is that I don’t need to find a snow leopard to study the species, but seeing one in the wild has been on my bucket list since the first time I stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau. I’ve had three close calls, which I hang on to each time I go into the field, thinking, “Remember when you almost saw one? Remember when one probably saw you but you didn’t see it? Hold on to hope!”

Close call #1:

In addition to collecting scat, we record and take pictures of any signs indicating carnivore presence. Typically we find things like pugmarks (paw prints) and claw scrapes along our collection transects in the thick of snow leopard habitat. But one afternoon, driving along a well-traveled dirt road, our driver slammed on his breaks. “看看! (Look, look!),” he exclaimed. I sat up, holding onto the headrest in front of me. On the left periphery of the dirt road were immaculate snow leopard pugmarks. One after the other, in succession: two sets. We immediately hopped out and inspected, careful not to disrupt the tracks.

The snow leopards had to be nearby. The pugmarks were fresh. A downpour of rain had occurred within the last half hour, which would have washed older tracks away. We started looking in all directions. The pugmark sizes suggested they were from an adult and juvenile – a mother with offspring? Snow leopards can move quickly, but with a cub in tow she could be right in front of our faces.

The pugmarks of an adult and juvenile snow leopard along a dirt roadside. Photo credit: C. Hacker

But despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot the pair of snow leopards. I took dozens of pictures of the area and spent hours after my return to Beijing scanning through each one, hoping to find them hidden in an outcrop. Still no luck.

A picture of the surrounding area where fresh pugmarks were found. Photo credit: C. Hacker

Close call #2:

When we’re on or traveling to and from transects, we count the number of all other animals we spot to get an idea of prey abundance. One afternoon, within 200m of a transect, a herd of blue sheep bounded in front of us. Snow leopards love blue sheep, and I was frustrated because this herd moved so quickly that I wasn’t confident in my count. We had started sampling the transect when our local field guide pointed out bright red blood on a large rock. We followed the blood trail until we found it – the carcass of a young blue sheep with fresh puncture wounds to its neck.

Our field guide started to explain the scene. It hadn’t been killed by a wolf; they attack from behind. Snow leopards and foxes attack at the neck, but the space between the puncture wounds, and therefore the canines, was too big to be from a fox. “雪豹. (Snow leopard),” he confidently stated.

A freshly killed young blue sheep with puncture wounds to the neck. Photo credit: C. Hacker

We started putting the pieces together. Our vehicle hadn’t caused the blue sheep herd to run: a snow leopard had. That snow leopard had been successful in its kill. What if our presence forced it to abandon its meal to get away from us? We elected to leave the transect to allow the animal to reclaim its prey, feeling guilty that we had disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

Close call #3:

Snow leopards sometimes predate livestock. We’re still trying to figure out why and how often, but it happens. Losing livestock can be a financial burden on herders, so finding non-lethal ways to stop predators from attacking livestock is a high priority. We wanted to test the effectiveness of one of these deterrents, a flashing light called a Foxlight. This entailed interviews of area residents, including one who casually pulled out his phone and showed us photos from a couple days earlier – a snow leopard, sitting in a predator-proof corral (maybe not so predator-proof?), amongst a couple sheep carcasses, just… hanging out.

The herder described the snow leopard as calm. We knew from earlier work in the area that the herders there had positive attitudes towards snow leopards, despite losing livestock to them relatively frequently. This herder was no exception. He waited for hours for the snow leopard to leave, reported the loss to his insurance, cleaned up the mess, and carried on. I sat back impressed but dismayed. If only we had gotten there two days earlier… Another chance to see a snow leopard that just wasn’t meant to be.

A snow leopard resting in a corral after having killed livestock. Photo credit: Bawa

For now, my fieldwork is on hold because of COVID-19, but I’m confident that one day I’ll get to spot the world’s most elusive cat. I sometimes think of what that moment will be like. A sigh of relief? Sheer awe? Accomplishment? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep my three close calls in the forefront of my mind to keep the hope alive.

Charlotte Hacker is a conservation geneticist using molecular approaches coupled with traditional field techniques and collaborative work with local communities to study at-risk species. Her PhD work through Duquesne University focuses on bridging knowledge gaps surrounding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and entails a set of research initiatives between numerous conservation partners and organizations both in the United States and Central Asia. For more about Charlotte, visit her website.