In a move that satisfies both researchers and big cat aficionados, a new video reveals never-before-seen footage of the Mongolian dens of two snow leopard mothers and their young. The video footage is not only heartwarming, it’s supremely useful for researchers whose efforts to find snow leopard dens are often fruitless because of the snow leopard’s secretive nature and mountainous habitat.
The most effective way to study wild animals is in their natural environments. Most of what has been previously known about snow leopards and their young has come from snow leopards in zoos. While useful, this information has not helped researchers learn about the size of litters in the wild nor how the young navigate disease, predation, poaching, or capture for the illegal wildlife trade.
Dens are richly important sources of data for researchers as they try to learn more about the reproductive habits and young of the endangered species. Tom McCarthy, executive director of the snow leopard program at Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization, says “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.” Likewise, Howard Quigley, executive director of Pathera’s jaguar and cougar programs, celebrates the new video’s utility, saying “Knowledge about the first days and weeks of life is vital to our understanding of how big cat populations work, and how likely it is for a newborn to reach adulthood and contribute to a healthy population. A valid conservation program requires such information, which this new development in snow leopard research provides.”
Researchers from Panthera and Snow Leopard Trust entered the dens while the mothers were hunting, finding one mother had two cubs and the second mother had one. All three cubs were weighed, measured, and photographed and two were microchipped for future identification. The chips can help scientists learn about life in the den, including how long cubs stay there, when they begin to venture out, and how long and how often moms leave to go hunt.
Orjan Johansson, Ph.D. student and Pathera’s snow leopard field scientist recorded a short video of a female and her cub bedded down in a partially man-made den.
Tragically, experts estimate that there are only around 4,500-7,500 snow leopards remain in the wild. Hopefully, this new video can help researchers and conservationists substantially boost those numbers.