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Tracking and Collaring the Ghost of Kangchenjunga

Story by WWF Nepal June 6th, 2017

The only certainty about tracking a snow leopard is the uncertainty.

It is early May and my team and I are on a mission to track and collar a fourth snow leopard in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA); a journey that began in 2013 with the collaring of the first male snow leopard. Two other snow leopards – a second male and one female - have been successfully tagged with satellite collars since then. The data from the satellite collar will help conservationists track the movements of the snow leopard and determine core habitats and corridors; crucial data facilitating the conservation of the endangered species.

These solitary and secretive cats are not called the “ghost of the mountains” without reason – no matter how much you prepare, you are almost always pointing in the dark. During every expedition, hope is the operative word. Yet, there I was in Rajmer - a sweeping valley, five days walk north of Taplejung - ‘hoping’ that a cat would put its foot through a small trap laid amid the vast Himalayan landscape.

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A lot of preparation has gone into the moment and just getting to Rajmer is a mission in itself. A 45-minute flight from the capital and an eight-hour drive to Taplejung is merely the start. Then on, the only way forward is on foot.

Snow leopards are highly elusive and given the terrain they reside in, monitoring, let alone tracking and collaring one is a highly challenging task. This is the reason our expedition commences only after a small spiritual ceremony is held, as per local belief, to grant us luck and safety. Stationed at a glacial valley at 4500m, and deep in the KCA, there is little doubt that my team – a band of scientists, researchers and conservationists from WWF Nepal, the National Trust for Nature Conservation and the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Management Council – are going to need it.

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Working out of a control station based in a hotel room, the team has been waiting for three days to receive a signal from the 24 strategically laid out traps. The traps have been laid out to cover pre-identified passageways and natural corridors based on scientific evidence from previous monitoring as well as discussions with locals. These traps - called the Aldrich Foothold Snare - clamp the foot of an animal and transmit a signal to our main communication tower. Till that happens, all we can do is wait and watch. For how long, no one can tell.

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While the citizen scientists on the team remain vigilant, recurrently checking whether any of the traps have been triggered, our prospects remain relatively dim with no signs of snow leopard movement over the next few days and heavy snowfall to boot. Then, just like that, an alarm is triggered from a trap set on a mountain ridge two kilometers from our station.

This is my third encounter with a snow leopard in the wild; however, every time you live the experience anew. With no time to lose, the tranquilizer is prepared and the dart finds its target in a single shot. With only an hour’s time to work around, the snow leopard is immediately hauled in a stretcher to a safer site. We carefully place a satellite collar on the snow leopard’s neck and check its vitals and measurements. She is a healthy female around two years old with normal body conditions weighing 30kg and 165cm in length.

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Samundra putting the satellite collar in snow leopard.jpg

The whole operation is wrapped up in about 40 minutes, and the leopard quickly begins to revive as the antidote takes effect. And just as quickly as she entered our world, she slides back into the wild. Just before she leaves, however, the locals name her Yalung, after the sacred mountain Yalung Khang.

Yalung is the second female and fourth snow leopard collared in Nepal’s eastern snow leopard conservation complex on 8 May 2017 under the government’s Snow Leopard Conservation Program. The information researchers will receive from her collar will help identify critical corridors, complement existing snow leopard science and research and contribute towards understanding deeper trans-boundary linkages in the future. They will also contribute to understanding spatial movements, ecological and climate resilient habitats in the landscape.

Now, a few weeks later, back at my desk, my only remaining connection with Yalung is the GPS locations I receive from her collar. And with the Himalayas, and its way of life - of both humans and animals - rapidly changing, Yalung and her future cubs will need all the help they can get.

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The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a large cat native to the mountainous regions of South and Central Asia. Elusive and secretive, the species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A 2013 report places their population at between 3921-6290 in the wild. Nepal’s population, according to the Snow Leopard Action Plan, hovers between 301-400 cats. Called the Semoh by the locals of the Kanchenjunga region, snow leopards are viewed relatively positively, with retaliatory killings by shepherds rare, if reported. And while poaching for body parts remains an ever-present threat, habitat shrinkage because of global warming and conflicts with humans continue to remain the main cause of concern for their future.

Yalung after she got trapped but before she was darted.jpg

Samundra Subba is a Research Officer at WWF Nepal specializing in terrestrial carnivores with special focus on population estimation and dynamics, spatial ecology and behavior, occupancy modelling and conservation genetics. He also supports design, planning and implementation of wildlife research projects in Nepal’s priority landscapes.

Footnote: Photos © Sanjog Rai / WWF Nepal