The two months long 2015 snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan ended on 8 August, with the last of three teams breaking camp. Biosphere Expeditions in collaboration with the local office of German NGO NABU (Naturschutzbund = Nature & Biodiversity Conservation Union) runs the snow leopard expedition annually with the aim of providing valuable scientific data to empower local authorities to make informed conservation decisions and take action based on hard data.
One of the highlights of this year’s results is the confirmation of snow leopard presence (in the form of tracks and scat) in the Kyrgyz Alatoo range. Three individual instances were recorded over the course of two months.
While this is exciting, especially for volunteer citizen scientists doing the ground work in the field, the project does not focus solely on the search of snow leopard sign, but also collects information on prey species. For example, mammals and birds that can reveal information on the biodiversity and health of the habitat as well as disturbances.
“It all adds to statistics and you also take into account the zeros”, explains field scientist Dr. Volodya Tytar. “If you check the camera trap and say – oh there is nothing – it is something! Because if it is a zero, which has been obtained, that also adds to the statistical database.”
When talking about how the data are used, Dr. Tytar mentions a new approach called ‘ecological niche modelling’ or ‘species distribution modelling’. This consists of the combination of readily available environmental digital information (for example temperature, moisture, vegetation, etc.) with ground data collected by volunteers. Computer software then combines the two to arrive at some sophisticated forecasting of wildlife distribution. It also identifies new areas that have not been surveyed yet, but that could be promising snow leopard habitat. “With modern computing methods a lot can be done”, Dr. Tytar adds, “but the bottleneck turns out to be that there are often very little ground data. So the data collected by our expeditioners in the field adds a fundamental missing piece of information to an existing digital information puzzle, enabling predictive analysis of species distribution even across non-surveyed areas – an exercise which would otherwise not be possible.”
Talking about the results of this year’s expedition, Dr. Tytar says that together with NABU, Biosphere Expeditions will be able to generate specific conclusions and recommendations about candidate areas for conservation status: “There are areas where we found fresh tracks of ibex in combination with minimum disturbances. Many of these areas are in very confined mountain locations with only one entrance, so they would be quite easy to protect by just having, say, a ranger station or a signboard and people patrolling the area. I think all this together in the future will work out in a network of protected areas, maybe including some kind of corridors as well. What we have been doing here significantly contributes to that kind of work”, concludes Dr. Tytar.
Listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, the snow leopard is threatened by poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss. It is estimated that fewer than 7,500 snow leopards remain in the wild. One goal formulated by an international snow leopard conference in Bishkek in 2014 was the 20/20 pledge – to protect 20 snow leopard landscapes that have over 100 breeding adults by 2020, and to promote sustainable development in areas where the species lives.