Noninvasive genetic population survey of snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in Kangchenjunga conservation area, Shey Phoksundo National Park and surrounding buffer zones of Nepal.
ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: The endangered snow leopard is found throughout major mountain ranges of Central Asia, including the remote Himalayas. However, because of their elusive behavior, sparse distribution, and poor access to their habitat, there is a lack of reliable information on their population status and demography, particularly in Nepal. Therefore, we utilized noninvasive genetic techniques to conduct a preliminary snow leopard survey in two protected areas of Nepal. RESULTS: A total of 71 putative snow leopard scats were collected and analyzed from two different areas; Shey Phoksundo National Park (SPNP) in the west and Kangchanjunga Conservation Area (KCA) in the east. Nineteen (27%) scats were genetically identified as snow leopards, and 10 (53%) of these were successfully genotyped at 6 microsatellite loci. Two samples showed identical genotype profiles indicating a total of 9 individual snow leopards. Four individual snow leopards were identified in SPNP (1 male and 3 females) and five (2 males and 3 females) in KCA. CONCLUSIONS: We were able to confirm the occurrence of snow leopards in both study areas and determine the minimum number present. This information can be used to design more in-depth population surveys that will enable estimation of snow leopard population abundance at these sites.
Project description:Although most felids have an exclusive carnivore diet, the presence of plant matter in scat has been reported among various species. This indicates that there may be an adaptive significance to the conservation of plant-eating behavior in felid evolution. Some studies have hypothesized that felids consume plants for self-medication or as a source of nutrition. In addition, it is thought that plant intake helps them to excrete hairballs, however, no scientific work has confirmed these effects. Thus, the objective of this study is to investigate the relationship between plant intake and hair evacuation in felid species. We selected snow leopards (Panthera uncia) as the study species because they have longer and denser hair than other felids. The behavior of 11 captive snow leopards was observed and scat samples from eight of them and two other captive individuals were analyzed. Snow leopards evacuate hair possibly by vomiting and excreting in scats. The frequency of plant-eating and vomiting and the amount of hair and plant in scat were evaluated. We found that the frequency of vomiting was much lower than the frequency of plant-eating. In addition, there was no significant relationship between the amount of plant matter contained in scats and the amount of hair in scats. Contrary to the common assumption, our results indicate that plant intake has little effect on hair evacuation in felid species.
Project description:Top carnivores play an important role in maintaining energy flow and functioning of the ecosystem, and a clear understanding of their diets and foraging strategies is essential for developing effective conservation strategies. In this paper, we compared diets and prey selection of snow leopards and wolves based on analyses of genotyped scats (snow leopards n = 182, wolves n = 57), collected within 26 sampling grid cells (5×5 km) that were distributed across a vast landscape of ca 5000 km2 in the Central Himalayas, Nepal. Within the grid cells, we sampled prey abundances using the double observer method. We found that interspecific differences in diet composition and prey selection reflected their respective habitat preferences, i.e. snow leopards significantly preferred cliff-dwelling wild ungulates (mainly bharal, 57% of identified material in scat samples), whereas wolves preferred typically plain-dwellers (Tibetan gazelle, kiang and argali, 31%). Livestock was consumed less frequently than their proportional availability by both predators (snow leopard = 27%; wolf = 24%), but significant avoidance was only detected among snow leopards. Among livestock species, snow leopards significantly preferred horses and goats, avoided yaks, and used sheep as available. We identified factors influencing diet composition using Generalized Linear Mixed Models. Wolves showed seasonal differences in the occurrence of small mammals/birds, probably due to the winter hibernation of an important prey, marmots. For snow leopard, occurrence of both wild ungulates and livestock in scats depended on sex and latitude. Wild ungulates occurrence increased while livestock decreased from south to north, probably due to a latitudinal gradient in prey availability. Livestock occurred more frequently in scats from male snow leopards (males: 47%, females: 21%), and wild ungulates more frequently in scats from females (males: 48%, females: 70%). The sexual difference agrees with previous telemetry studies on snow leopards and other large carnivores, and may reflect a high-risk high-gain strategy among males.
Project description:The snow leopard Panthera uncia is a vulnerable wild felid native to mountainous regions of 12 Asian countries. It faces numerous overlapping threats, including killings by herders retaliating against livestock losses, the illegal wildlife trade, loss of prey and habitat, infrastructure, energy and mining developments, and climate change. The species ranges over large territories that often lie outside of protected areas (PA), so coexistence with human populations across its range is key to its persistence. Human attitudes to snow leopards may be an important factor to consider in reducing overlapping threats to this species. However, this nexus has not been widely studied to date. Attitudes to snow leopard conservation, including actors and interventions, may also be a significant aspect of coexistence. These have also received limited empirical attention. This study therefore explored human attitudes to snow leopards and to snow leopard conservation, the motivations for these attitudes and the individual factors that best explained them. Using systematic sampling, a quantitative questionnaire was administered to 705 households at two sites in the Nepal Himalayas: Sagarmatha National Park, with a less decentralised governance model, and Annapurna Conservation Area, with a more decentralised model. Linear regression models were the main form of analysis. Based on these, attitudes to snow leopard conservation emerged as the strongest influence on local attitudes to snow leopards, and vice versa. This was true in both PAs, despite their differing management regimes. Other important explanatory factors included numbers of livestock owned, years of education, household livelihoods and age. Furthermore, a positive intrinsic motivation was the most common reason given by respondents to explain their attitudes to both snow leopards and snow leopard conservation. These findings demonstrate that, in addition to the usual suite of factors that influence attitudes to a species, the way in which its conservation is pursued and perceived also needs consideration. How the snow leopard is conserved may strongly influence its coexistence with local communities.
Project description:Species Survival Plans and European Endangered Species Programmes have been developed for several species of endangered felids in order to build up captive reserve populations and support their conservation in the wild. The Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), snow leopard (Uncia uncia), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) are managed in such ex situ conservation programmes. Many zoological institutions hand-rear offspring if rearing by the mother fails. Hand-rearing can cause behavioural problems, resulting in decreased copulation and lower breeding success in some species. In this study, studbook data subsets were examined: from 1901 to 2011; and 2000 to 2011. We analysed records from 4273 Siberian tigers, 2045 snow leopards, 3435 cheetahs, and 804 clouded leopards. We assessed the number of offspring produced, litter size, age at first reproduction, longevity, infant mortality and generational rearing of hand-reared versus parent-reared individuals. Hand-reared Siberian tigers (p<0.01; p = 0.0113), snow leopards (p<0.01), male cheetahs (p<0.01) and female clouded leopards (p<0.01) produced fewer offspring than parent-reared individuals. Hand-reared snow leopard breeding pairs had larger litters than parent-reared pairs (p = 0.0404). Hand-reared snow leopard females reproduced later in life (p<0.01). Hand-reared female Siberian tigers lived shorter lives, while hand-reared cheetahs lived longer (p<0.01; p = 0.0107). Infant mortality was higher in hand-reared snow leopards (p<0.01) and male cheetahs (p = 0.0395) in the 1901-2011 dataset and lower in hand-reared female Siberian tiger and male snow leopard cubs (p = 0.0404; p = 0.0349) in the 2000-2011 dataset. The rearing of the mother and subsequent rearing of offspring showed a significant relationship for all species (p<0.01 for Siberian tiger and snow leopard cubs; p<0.001 for cheetah and snow leopard cubs). Taking into account the limited carrying capacity of zoos, the results of this study highlight that careful consideration should be taken when deciding whether or not to hand-rear individuals that are part of Species Survival Plans and European Endangered Species Programmes.
Project description:Background:The Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges in Pakistan's northern areas are a natural habitat of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia syn. Uncia uncia) but the ecological studies on this animal are scarce since it is human shy by nature and lives in difficult mountainous tracts. The pilot study is conducted to exploit the genetic diversity and population structure of the snow leopard in this selected natural habitat of the member of the wildcat family in Pakistan. Method:About 50 putative scat samples of snow leopard from five localities of Gilgit-Baltistan (Pakistan) along with a control sample of zoo maintained male snow leopard were collected for comparison. Significant quality and quantity of genomic DNA was extracted from scat samples using combined Zhang-phenol-chloroform method and successful amplification of cytochrome c oxidase I gene (190 bp) using mini-barcode primers, seven simple sequence repeats (SSR) markers and Y-linked AMELY gene (200 bp) was done. Results:Cytochrome c oxidase I gene sequencing suggested that 33/50 (66%) scat samples were of snow leopard. AMELY primer suggested that out of 33 amplified samples, 21 (63.63%) scats were from male and 12 (36.36%) from female leopards. Through successful amplification of DNA of 25 out of 33 (75.75%) scat samples using SSR markers, a total of 68 alleles on seven SSR loci were identified, showing low heterozygosity, while high gene flow between population. Discussion:The low gene flow rate among the population results in low genetic diversity causing decreased diversification. This affects the adaptability to climatic changes, thus ultimately resulting in decreased population size of the species.
Project description:Livestock depredation across the trans-Himalaya causes significant economic losses to pastoralist communities. Quantification of livestock predation and the assessment of variables associated with depredation are crucial for designing effective long-term mitigation measures. We investigated the patterns and factors of livestock depredation by snow leopards (<i>Panthera uncia</i>) using semi-structured questionnaires targeting herders in the Narphu valley of the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. During the two years (2017/18 and 2018/19), 73.9% of the households interviewed (<i>n</i> = 65) lost livestock to snow leopards, with an annual average loss of two livestock per household. Of the total depredation attributed to snow leopards, 55.4% were yak (mainly female: 79%), 31.7% goat, 6.8% sheep, 3.2% horse and 2.8% cattle. Results from applying Generalized Linear Mixed Models (GLMMs) revealed the total number of livestock owned and the number of larger bodied livestock species as the main explanatory covariates explaining livestock depredation. Forty-one (41%) of all herders considered snow leopard's preference for domestic livestock as the main factor in livestock predation, whereas only 5% perceived poor herding practice as the main reason for the loss. Our study found poor and changing herding practices in the valley, whereby 71% herders reported careful herding as a solution to snow leopard depredation, and 15% of herders considered the complete extermination of snow leopards as the best solution to the problem. Tolerance levels and awareness among herders towards snow leopard conservation is increasing, mainly due to the Buddhist religion and strict law enforcement within this protected area. We recommend the effective implementation of a community-based livestock insurance scheme to compensate the economic loss of herders due to predation and improved herding practices as the recommended mitigation measures for ensuring livestock security and snow leopards' conservation in the valley.
Project description:The snow leopard Panthera uncia is an elusive species inhabiting some of the most remote and inaccessible tracts of Central and South Asia. It is difficult to determine its distribution and density pattern, which are crucial for developing conservation strategies. Several techniques for species detection combining camera traps with remote sensing and geographic information systems have been developed to model the habitat of such cryptic and low-density species in challenging terrains. Utilising presence-only data from camera traps and direct observations, alongside six environmental variables (elevation, aspect, ruggedness, distance to water, land cover, and prey habitat suitability), we assessed snow leopard habitat suitability across Ladakh in northern India. This is the first study to model snow leopard distribution both in India and utilising direct observation data. Results suggested that elevation and ruggedness are the two most influential environmental variables for snow leopard habitat suitability, with highly suitable habitat having an elevation range of 2,800 m to 4,600 m and ruggedness of 450 m to 1,800 m. Our habitat suitability map estimated approximately 12% of Ladakh's geographical area (c. 90,000 km2) as highly suitable and 18% as medium suitability. We found that 62.5% of recorded livestock depredation along with over half of all livestock corrals (54%) and homestays (58%) occurred within highly suitable snow leopard habitat. Our habitat suitability model can be used to assist in allocation of conservation resources by targeting construction of livestock corrals to areas of high habitat suitability and promoting ecotourism programs in villages in highly suitable snow leopard habitat.
Project description:The snow leopard is one of the most endangered large mammals. Its population, already low, is declining, most likely due to the consequences of human activity, including a reduction in the size and number of suitable habitats. With climate change, habitat loss may escalate, because of an upward shift in the tree line and concomitant loss of the alpine zone, where the snow leopard lives. Migration between suitable areas, therefore, is important because a decline in abundance in these areas may result in inbreeding, fragmentation of populations, reduction in genetic variation due to habitat fragmentation, loss of connectivity, bottlenecks or genetic drift. Here we use our data collected in Nepal to determine the areas suitable for snow leopards, by using habitat suitability maps, and describe the genetic structure of the snow leopard within and between these areas. We also determine the influence of landscape features on the genetic structure of its populations and reveal corridors connecting suitable areas. We conclude that it is necessary to protect these natural corridors to maintain the possibility of snow leopards' migration between suitable areas, which will enable gene flow between the diminishing populations and thus maintain a viable metapopulation of snow leopards.
Project description:An understanding of local perceptions of carnivores is important for conservation and management planning. In the central Himalayas, Nepal, we interviewed 428 individuals from 85 settlements using a semi-structured questionnaire to quantitatively assess local perceptions and tolerance of snow leopards and wolves. We used generalized linear mixed effect models to assess influential factors, and found that tolerance of snow leopards was much higher than of wolves. Interestingly, having experienced livestock losses had a minor impact on perceptions of the carnivores. Occupation of the respondents had a strong effect on perceptions of snow leopards but not of wolves. Literacy and age had weak impacts on snow leopard perceptions, but the interaction among these terms showed a marked effect, that is, being illiterate had a more marked negative impact among older respondents. Among the various factors affecting perceptions of wolves, numbers of livestock owned and gender were the most important predictors. People with larger livestock herds were more negative towards wolves. In terms of gender, males were more positive to wolves than females, but no such pattern was observed for snow leopards. People's negative perceptions towards wolves were also related to the remoteness of the villages. Factors affecting people's perceptions could not be generalized for the two species, and thus need to be addressed separately. We suggest future conservation projects and programs should prioritize remote settlements.
Project description:Conservation conflict over livestock depredation is one of the key drivers of large mammalian carnivore declines worldwide. Mitigating this conflict requires strategies informed by reliable knowledge of factors influencing livestock depredation. Wild prey and livestock abundance are critical factors influencing the extent of livestock depredation. We compared whether the extent of livestock predation by snow leopards Panthera uncia differed in relation to densities of wild prey, livestock, and snow leopards at two sites in Shey Phoksundo National Park, Nepal. We used camera trap-based spatially explicit capture-recapture models to estimate snow leopard density; double-observer surveys to estimate the density of their main prey species, the blue sheep Pseudois nayaur; and interview-based household surveys to estimate livestock population and number of livestock killed by snow leopards. The proportion of livestock lost per household was seven times higher in Upper Dolpa, the site which had higher snow leopard density (2.51 snow leopards per 100 km2) and higher livestock density (17.21 livestock per km2) compared to Lower Dolpa (1.21 snow leopards per 100 km2; 4.5 livestock per km2). The wild prey density was similar across the two sites (1.81 and 1.57 animals per km2 in Upper and Lower Dolpa, respectively). Our results suggest that livestock depredation level may largely be determined by the abundances of the snow leopards and livestock and predation levels on livestock can vary even at similar levels of wild prey density. In large parts of the snow leopard range, livestock production is indispensable to local livelihoods and livestock population is expected to increase to meet the demand of cashmere. Hence, we recommend that any efforts to increase livestock populations or conservation initiatives aimed at recovering or increasing snow leopard population be accompanied by better herding practices (e.g., predator-proof corrals) to protect livestock from snow leopard.