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.

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).