Cutting edge conservation
In the vast wilderness of the Gobi desert, a team of intrepid explorers and scientists worked against odds, setting up camera traps to monitor the enigmatic Snow leopard in one of its most challenging habitats. Among other things, their account elaborates on how modern intelligent applications and advanced technology are helping us understand and protect the world’s most remote terrains and species a little better.
South Gobi, one of the world’s greatest deserts, is unique in having a brilliant mix of sand dunes, steppes and rugged mountains. These rugged terrains are also home to some of the finest Snow leopard populations that we know of. Situated nearly 300 km from the nearest active airport and tarred road, and at least 50 km from the nearest cable of a power grid, the Snow leopard habitat is remote in every possible sense. With a population of just over 3 million people spread across 1.5 million sq km, Mongolia is second only to China in the number of Snow leopards they have in the wild. The Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, our Mongolia partner has been working in this area for more than 15 years, helping the community generate additional incomes through the Snow Leopard Enterprise.
The Snow leopard has remained one of the most enigmatic large felids living today. Their almost custom-designed anatomy, which includes large nasal cavities, short forelimbs, powerful lungs, long fur and an enormous tail, gives them an unbeatable edge over human researchers who attempt to study the species in its difficult habitats. Early researchers complained of estimating their own home range sizes rather than of the Snow leopards when they attempted to collar and follow their radio signals on foot. Camera trapping for prolonged periods was difficult with batteries and film rolls running out every second day. However, the 21st century saw some of the most remarkable advancements in technology; a lot of which soon became available to wildlife researchers. In 2008, the first long-term ecological study on Snow leopards was initiated in South Gobi, specifically in the Tost and Tosonbumba mountain ranges, to understand the mysteries of the elusive mammal. The key was in using state-of-the-art technology to cover the evolutionary advantage Snow leopards have over humans.
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
We recently assigned ourselves a mission to estimate Snow leopard population in the Nemegt and Sewrei mountain ranges that are separated from our study site by a 70 km-wide steppe and desert. One of our collared Snow leopards had moved to this location in 2012 and had been living there since. People there often reported seeing Snow leopard evidence. Most importantly, the area constituted a critical part of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park, one of the biggest in Mongolia. As part of our mission, we were supposed to set up 30-40 camera traps in a systematic grid, covering nearly 1500-2000 sq km. Since it was the first time we were in this area, we needed to survey thoroughly before setting up cameras at sites with a high probability of Snow leopard movement. We were reasonably well equipped, with all the camera traps and batteries checked, charged and cleaned up beforehand; along with two tents, ration and gas to last us 15 days at a stretch in a region that has few people, fewer sources of water and negligible roads.
The drive from our base-camp to Nemegt was fascinating, as we followed nearly the same path that our collared Snow leopard Aylagch took when he emigrated from Tost to Nemegt, early in 2012. Surrounded by sand dunes and a sparse growth of bushes, we drove past an occasional herd of Black-tailed gazelles and ended up in a beautiful mountain range in full bloom. It was spring in the Gobi and the colour diversity of the landscape was at its best. The Nemegt Mountains are an excellent Snow leopard habitat. They don’t have many herders living nearby; instead, the area has several Ninja miners who illegally dig up small areas and extract minerals, primarily gold. Since we were in an absolutely new place, it was critical for us to be able to locate sources of potable water and paths to move around. When our Russian van could not go any further, we hiked and explored.
Although Snow leopards are incredibly cryptic, they make their presence felt by leaving scrapes and pugmarks. Scraping is often followed by markings on vertical overhangs or saddles on ridgelines. Scrapes are like Facebook posts and sites with many scrapes are like Facebook walls. They probably carry many messages such as ‘this is my area, stay away’ from a territorial male, or ‘I am ready to have cubs’ from a breeding female in oestrus. Our data from other places indicates that Snow leopards patrol their ranges avidly and there is a fair probability of them getting photographed within or at the edge of their home-range boundary. But since we humans lack their olfactory skills, we can at best walk around and look for saddles or rock overhangs for fresh scrapes.
TECH TO THE RESCUE
A straight distance of half a kilometre on an ordinary GPS can at times result in a walk of several kilometres if a difficult ridge separates us from the point of interest. Earlier, we used to carry GPS units and printouts of topographic sheets with contours to find our ways in the mountains. At each point where we stood, we used the GPS to get a location and then a pencil to mark a point on the toposheet. Although efficient, there were always risks of losing the marked sheet, mis-plotting the location on the handheld map or erring about the direction when using an additional compass.
It can be argued that mobiles and handheld tablets have seen the fastest pace of development in the computing industry over the past five years. Not far behind are the uncountable applications that are created every day to make them ‘smarter’. It is fascinating how a GPS once the size of a briefcase now fits in a 10cmx5cmx0.5cm phone, how a digital camera with 8MPixels communicates with the GPS embedded in the same phone, as well as with a conventional computer. Although changes in habitat over time are recorded best with satellite images, geo-referenced photographs are also quite valuable in monitoring change. GPS and camera-enabled smartphones make the job easier by integrating what would otherwise need different devices. Photographs taken from the same locations can be compared over the years to monitor changes in habitat quality.
A smartphone application, called Soviet Military Maps developed by AltoGISTM not only provides coordinates to the user but also overlays them on several maps including high-resolution topographic sheets. These toposheets were created in the 1960s by the Soviet cartographers and made available for public use after the Cold War. The makers of this app simply provide access to the sheets on the Android platform, that can be saved and used even when offline. The Soviet map not only has clearly marked contours but also provides locations of wells, community centres, canyons and motorable tracks. The ability to swiftly write on a touch phone has made the process of taking notes and collecting data during the surveys hassle-free. In a nutshell, a mobile phone, otherwise rendered useless in the absence of mobile signals was being used 24×7 to find our ways in the mountain and take geo-referenced photographs. Finding water, locating canyons to provide our tents with enough protection from strong winds in the nights, surveying ridges and alternate areas in absence of scrapes became easier now that we had a handheld map with a GPS and compass constantly communicating with it.
During the days, we would fill up our bottles and large canisters with water from the nearest well or spring that we found on the mapping application. Since the area is mostly free of chemical pollution, we made the water potable by straining it through our special travel filter with glass fibres and active carbon. While the filter cleared the water of all physical impurities, the active carbon adsorbed smaller contaminants and impurities.
This little effort saved us the cost and waste of hundreds of plastic water bottles that would have otherwise been required to quench the thirst of the teams during the 17 field days. In the night, we used rechargeable batteries whose charge lasted us the entire trip to light up the new LED-based headlamps and tent lights. Thanks to an additional tablet that communicated seamlessly with the smart-phone even in absence of the usual mobile network, by creating its own wireless network, we rarely required the relatively energy expensive notebook computers. All equipment were charged without generators, using the 12-volt output from the car’s cigarette lighter point and a portable inverter. Because of our ability to navigate rather quickly thanks to the phone-GPS-toposheet-compass enabled smartphone, we were able to survey at least three different sites every day. To go from one survey area to another, we were to drive up to 2-3 hours or more. This summed up to a good amount of engine run-time every day and we could use the electricity generated by the engine of the Russian van to charge our notebook computer, smartphone and tablet. With the right set of equipment, we were able to make relatively efficient choices and reduce our energy footprint.
With the help of the technological support, our team—consisting of our research manager, Purevjav Lkhgavajav (Puji), our driver Mijid Amir (Miji), the 19 rangers who joined and left our team in phases, and me—was able to set up 38 research cameras in a previously un-surveyed area of roughly 1500-2000 sq km. We had driven about 1000 km on barely-existent tracks through beautiful, rugged landscapes; and covered about 150 km on foot, climbing and descending a total of nearly 8000 metres (over 26,000 feet) in altitude. The cameras, retrieved after 40 days, boasted of a lot of Snow leopard activity through the region. We had captured more than 300 images of Snow leopards, and 67,000+ images of manul, lynx, wolf, red fox, argali, ibex, Tolai hare, stoats, livestock, people and many species of birds. Detailed analyses will follow as we identify individuals and run the data through sophisticated modeling procedures to estimate Snow leopard population in the Nemegt, Gilbent and Sewrei Mountains of Gurvan Saikhan National Park.
It is hardly possible for a handful of researchers like us to be able to cover vast Snow leopard habitats entirely on our own. Furthermore, one can never replace the skills, privileges and knowledge of locals when it comes to surveying and monitoring these areas. The local park rangers representing different ranges of the Protected Area showed great interest in learning about the means and methods to study and monitor wildlife; the Protected Area Director and Environmental Specialists at the Protected Area lent all their support. During this field trip, we managed to train 19 rangers who we hope should be able to help us in the future with our studies, with appropriate technological support.
Population monitoring programmes and estimation of vital rates are key to understanding the mechanisms of population growth, decline or stability, and are important for effective conservation action. In a recent publication in the online journal Plos One we report, for the first time, the population trends and vital rates of the endangered Snow leopard based on camera trapping over four years in the Tost Mountains, South Gobi, Mongolia. We used robust design multi-season mark-recapture analysis to estimate the trends in abundance, sex ratio, survival probability and the probability of temporary emigration and immigration for adult and young Snow leopards. The Snow leopard population remained constant over most of the study period between 2008 and 2012. Comparison of results with the ‘known population’ of radio-collared Snow leopards suggested high accuracy in our estimates. Although seemingly stable, vigorous underlying dynamics were evident in this population, with the adult sex ratio shifting from being male-biased to female-biased during the study. Survival probability of the young following their mother was marginally less than that of the adults, even though it reduced a bit further when they became independent after 2 years. Young Snow leopards showed a high probability of temporary emigration and immigration though the adults remained sedentary. While the current female-bias in the population and the number of cubs born each year render the study population safe, the vigorous dynamics suggests that the situation can change quickly. The reduction in the proportion of male Snow leopards may be indicative of continuing anthropogenic pressures. Our work reiterates the importance of monitoring both the abundance and population dynamics of species for effective conservation. The study is continuing and we hope to be able to answer many questions in the years to come.
Cover Pic credit: Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi
Originally published in August 2014 issue of Saevus Magazine
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