Endangered snow leopards find hope in protective hands

Carol Esson holds the future of Mongolia's snow leopards in her hands.
Carol Esson holds the future of Mongolia's snow leopards in her hands.

IT WAS near midnight, high in the Tost Mountains of the wild South Gobi region, Mongolia.

Australian vet Carol Esson was barely conscious of the cold, for in her hands was a snow leopard.

''Really,'' she thought to herself, ''How much better can it be?''

Then life improved. That transformative moment with a sedated adult on Dr Esson's first volunteer stint was capped last month when she returned to the Tosts and handled the species' future - its cubs.

The snow leopard is top predator and wildlife icon of central Asia's high mountain ranges. Listed as endangered for 40 years, its numbers are believed to be still dwindling. As few as 4000 survive in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In the Tosts, this alpine rock climbing specialist preys chiefly on the goat-like ibex, but it also eats domestic goats, a recent study in the journal PLoS One found.

Retaliatory killing by local herders is endangering the cat they call ''mountain ghost'', as is poaching for body parts.

In a landmark study, US-based wild cat conservation organisation Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust achieved a breakthrough by tracking down, and entering, two active snow leopard dens.

The big cat's secretive and elusive nature, coupled with the treacherous landscape, make dens extremely difficult to locate, according to Panthera.

''We have spent years trying to determine when and where snow leopards give birth, the size of their litters, and the chances a cub has of surviving into adulthood,'' said Panthera's Tom McCarthy. ''This is one of those exceptional moments in conservation where after years of effort, we get a glimpse into the life of an animal that needs our help to survive.''

Dr Esson, 42, from Cairns, joined a small team who spent days watching the mountainsides to pinpoint the dens used by two females previously fitted with satellite/VHS tracker collars. When the mothers left to hunt, the team moved in.

''I wished I'd done more training for mountain climbing,'' Dr Esson told The Age.

''We found one cub in a disused rocky hide that was probably used by hunters. The other [hiding place] was high in a rocky cleft, where there were two cubs, well protected.''

While other team members kept lookout for the return of the mothers, Dr Esson did quick health assessments.

''I took hair samples for DNA, microchipped them for future identification, weighed and measured them. They all looked in brilliant condition.''

Knowledge of the first weeks of life is vital to understanding how big cat populations work, according to Panthera.

Field scientist Orjan Johansson also managed to achieve a first - shooting short videos of a mother and cubs in their den using a camera fixed to a long pole. One clip shows a watchful mother raising her grey-green eyes towards the pole while her cubs huddle close. In another, two cubs sprawl on the den floor, panting in the heat of day.

Dr Esson said the privations of the journey to the Tosts counted for little compared to its rewards.

''It's hard physically as well as mentally, as the area is so remote. You are out there for weeks or, in Orjan's case, months at a time without any sort of break. It sort of consumes you.''

She hopes to get back there, though. ''It'll be great being able to follow the cubs and see what happens to them until they disperse from their mothers.''

See video at www.panthera.org/programs/snow-leopard/videos-snow-leopard-mother-and-cubs-dens-recorded-mongolia

This story Endangered snow leopards find hope in protective hands first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.