International Team Finishes First Phase of Snow Leopard Conservation Project

ASTANA – An international team has just completed the first phase of fieldwork in a project to conduct a population survey of snow leopards in the Almaty State Nature Reserve in Almaty oblast, as well as to model the potential impact of climate change on the reserve and its snow leopard population.

The research is being supported by a $50,000 grant awarded earlier this year by the Snow Leopard Network to the team of Dr. Ian Convery of the University of Cumbria in the U.K., Professor ‎Owen Nevin of Central Queensland University in Australia and Professor Sabyr Nurtazin and Azim Baibagysov of the Kazakh National University in Almaty. Nevin and Convery have worked together for 10 years and began collaborating with Kazakh colleagues in 2012 on a brown bear research project, which showed the potential for further collaboration.

In early 2014, the team at the University of Cumbria was awarded a Snow Leopard Conservation Grant by the Snow Leopard Network for a collaborative project involving the Almaty State Nature Reserve, Kazakh National University and Central Queensland University, the researchers said in a joint response to questions from The Astana Times.

“We have just finished the first phase of fieldwork and have set up 40 ‘trailcams’ (camera traps) to carry out a population survey of snow leopard numbers in the nature reserve. The camera traps will also provide data on the abundance and distribution of the snow leopard’s prey within the reserve. These data, along with satellite derived habitat maps, will be combined with expert knowledge from reserve staff in a fuzzy logic model, which will be used to examine potential impacts of climate change in the reserve,” they said.

The research will create a snow leopard population index using fuzzy model inputs. (Fuzzy logic and fuzzy modelling are methods that deal with degrees of truth, rather than binary true/false variables, and generate conclusions that are approximate rather than fixed.) The data will map the collected snow leopard population density and abundance estimates against weather and environmental conditions. Then, using “if-then” rules, the model will be used to predict snow leopard populations under different conditions.

“In this way, we can predict the population state if, for example, snow cover, temperature or other conditions are altered by climate change. The rules base can be created based on past data, observations and expert knowledge,” the researchers said.

The team calls their work an important first step in monitoring the population of Kazakhstan’s snow leopards and understanding how they are affected by changes in climate.

As a mountain species, the nomadic snow leopard is particularly affected by climate change, as small increases in temperature move the boundaries of their habitats upward, decreasing the area of habitat available and potentially cutting those smaller areas off from other similar habitats in other parts of the mountain range. “The reduction in both area and connectivity have substantial impacts on wide-ranging carnivores,” they said.

Snow leopards and other apex predators are extremely important in maintaining the balance of ecosystems. Top predators help control herbivore populations; without them, overgrazing by those animals can affect everything from nesting birds to erosion patterns, the researchers said.

The snow leopard population in the Almaty State Nature Reserve is one of only two stable populations in the country. Though snow leopards exist throughout the mountain ranges of much of Asia (including in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and possibly even Myanmar, there may be only 5,000 individual cats in the world. (Most estimates rarely exceed 7,500.) Highly endangered, snow leopards remain the least studied of all large cats, the researchers say.

“What makes Kazakhstan’s snow leopards especially interesting … is that they occur at the edge of the range in a drier, less productive landscape; this makes the populations especially vulnerable to climate change and ideal for the study of the impacts of this change,” the scholars said. The lessons they hope to learn here will be important for the overall understanding of the animals, particularly considering connectivity across their vast range, the researchers said.

Conservation work, including managing and monitoring populations, is long-established in Kazakhstan, the researchers said, and moving ahead rapidly. In addition to their project and ongoing efforts in parks and reserves, a project is now underway through the Institute of Zoology in Almaty to conduct a national survey of snow leopard populations.

As Kazakhstan’s tourism industry develops, thoughtfully and sustainably managed ecotourism could be used to help the endangered cats. “Our work elsewhere, especially with brown bears, shows that ecotourism can play a significant role in wildlife conservation by generating substantial market values and revenue streams,” the researchers said. “Snow leopards are elusive and live at very low densities, which makes them much harder for tourists to reliably spot; however the landscapes in which they live are stunningly beautiful.” An experienced core of ecotourists who understand how rarely such animals are seen could underpin niche tourism around the creatures. “In many ways, for these people, the challenges add to the thrill of the experience and just being in the same landscape as these magnificent animals is an extremely rewarding experience.”

To support its snow leopard population, the researchers say Kazakhstan should maintain its network of protected areas (which they call well-managed) and its support for research and monitoring. They also urge Kazakhstan to take new conservation steps, including developing and enhancing trans-boundary conservation initiatives, as the animals frequently inhabit border regions.

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