Snow leopard even rarer than expected

Genetic analysis reveals that previous population estimates are too high

Sleeping snow leopard in the Buffalo Zoo (USA), in the field, these big cats are seriously threatened. © Dave Pape / Public domain
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The snow leopard of Asia is apparently even more threatening than previously thought. So far, it was assumed that there are still 350 to 500 animals living on the northern edge of Nepal in the Himalayas. But these numbers are far too high, as researchers found by genetic analysis. Out of 71 supposed snow leopard droppings, only 19 actually came from these big cats. This feces, in turn, was deposed by only nine different individuals. "This shows that the traditional methods of counting snow leopards far overestimate the size of the population, " say the scientists in the journal "BMC Research Notes".

The shy, heavily threatened snow leopards live in the inaccessible high mountain regions of Asia. Since they can hardly be directly observed, estimates of their remaining numbers are based on indirect evidence, including traces, debris or reports from the local population. That many of the collected remains not from snow leopards, but from other mountain predators, have only now been able to show by genetic analysis, the researchers say.

Results also give hope

But in the opinion of the scientists, the results also arouse hope: For the first time, it is possible to determine exactly where individual snow leopards are via the faeces analysis method. This is important in order to know which mountain regions need special protection in the future.

"Nepal is rapidly evolving, so it is even more important to know which high-priority areas need to be protected from human intervention, " said Dibesh B. Karmacharya of the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal and his colleagues. In view of this, the discovery was encouraging that the nine identified snow leopards were found in two different protected areas in Nepal. That shows at least that these protected areas rightly existed.

Hide and photos of the endangered snow leopard exhibited at Logan Airport in Boston to deter tourists from buying roached furs. Fish US Fish and Wildlife Service

Excrement samples from two national parks examined

For their study, the researchers analyzed feces collected between 2006 and 2009 in two nature reserves in Nepal, the Shey Phoksundo National Park (SPNP) and the Kangchanjunga Conservation Area (KCA). From these, the scientists isolated the DNA and thus determined from which species and from which individual the faeces came. display

"This method has the advantage over traditional methods that it does not disturb the snow leopards in any way, " say the researchers. You do not need to install transmitters or track the individual animals to identify them clearly.

Three males and six females

Among the nine snow leopards, which the researchers clearly identified from faecal samples, were three males and six females, they report. In both national parks, both male and female were found - and thus a hopeful basis for the survival of the population.

Next, the scientists want to collect and analyze other feces samples in other areas. "This will allow us to explore family relationships, genetic diversity, social structure and snow leopard territories, " says Karmacharya. As a result, it will be easier to understand in the future how best to protect this endangered species. (BMC Research Notes, 2011)

(BMC Research Notes / dapd, 29.11.2011 - NPO)