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First ever video of wild snow leopard cub den

Posted by: The Snow Leopard Trust (a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife) with Gigi Allianic, Communications

A close-up of a wild snow leopard cub born in Mongolia. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera.
You’ve been following the story of Woodland Park Zoo’s snow leopard cubs, but now we have some exciting cub news from the field: our conservation partner, the Snow Leopard Trust, is reporting in from Mongolia with the first ever den site of snow leopard cubs captured on video in the wild.

Using GPS radio collars, an international team of scientists has been tracking snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert since 2008. In May, two of the study’s females began to restrict their daily movements to smaller and smaller areas, which the team interpreted as a signal that both were preparing to give birth. Traveling through steep and rocky mountain outcroppings, the team followed VHF signals transmitted by the collars and finally located the dens on June 21.

Snow leopard cub den, partially man-made. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera.
Only a few miles apart, both dens were high up in steep canyons. The first den was in a big cave with a man-made rock wall blocking most of the entrance. “As we stood outside the den we could hear the cub and smell the cats but not see anything inside the den,” noted researcher Orjan Johansson of Sweden. He and his colleagues, Sumbee Tomorsukh of Mongolia, Mattia Colombo of Italy, and Carol Esson of Australia, had to think fast and decided to tape a camera to their VHF antenna. Extending the camera over the wall they were able to film the inside of the cave. Their remarkable footage shows a female snow leopard lying tucked against the wall staring at the entrance with a paw over her tiny cub.

These two cubs were just weeks old when spotted by a research team in Mongolia. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera.
At the second den, the team found two male cubs in a narrow crack in a cliff wall. After confirming their mother was out on a kill, the scientists entered, photographed the cubs and obtained hair samples that will allow them to establish the cubs’ genetic identification and confirm the gender. They also took weights and measurements and implanted PIT tags (tiny tracking microchips similar to those used by pet owners). Both cubs had full stomachs and appeared to be in good condition.

The team handled the cubs with care and took their measurements as quickly as possible. “This was an unprecedented opportunity. We wanted to be as careful as possible and only take the most pressing data,” says Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust. The days following the den visits the team listened with VHF from a distance to make sure the females returned. Their constant monitoring has confirmed that both females are still with their cubs. The research teams will not be visiting the cubs or the den sites again in order to limit disturbance to the den areas and the cubs themselves.

A cub is carefully and quickly handled by experts. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust/Panthera.
The Snow Leopard Trust is working hard to improve protection for the cats. However, due to their elusive nature, very little is known about snow leopards in the wild. Birth rates, sex ratios, cub sizes, litter sizes, and cub survival rates have never been documented but are critical to understanding—and planning for—the survival of the species. Follow-up assessment of cub survival will enable the Snow Leopard Trust to clarify the potential for snow leopard populations to grow and recover from declines.

This long-term snow leopard study in Mongolia’s South Gobi is a joint project with Snow Leopard Conservation Fund and Panthera, and is in cooperation with the Mongolia Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.

At Woodland Park Zoo, we’re excited for the good news these births bring—hope for the future of this endangered species. But it’s especially thrilling to catch it on video, considering how rare and elusive snow leopards are. They are known as the ghosts of the mountains in their native range of Central Asia and Russia.

Woodland Park Zoo cooperates with partners in 36 field conservation projects in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. One of the most significant of those partnerships is with the Snow Leopard Trust, which was created at Woodland Park Zoo in 1981 by staff member Helen Freeman.

Woodland Park Zoo snow leopards test research cameras in their exhibit as part of our conservation partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

The zoo’s own snow leopards have engaged in several pilot tests to help their cousins in the wild, including testing motion sensor research cameras, testing cologne as an attractant to lure wild snow leopards to research cameras and GPS collar sites and testing GPS collars. Snow leopards in zoos are conservation ambassadors for their species in the wild and help to inspire visitors to learn more about how to save this endangered cat that is struggling to survive in its range countries. 

The endangered snow leopard will be in the spotlight at the zoo’s sixth annual Snow Leopard Day: Asian Wildlife Conservation on Saturday, August 4. Hosted by the zoo and the Snow Leopard Trust, the event will illustrate how the zoo’s partnership is helping to save the endangered cats and bringing life sustaining commerce to indigenous families. Activities also will focus on logging and palm oil, and how people’s choices and actions can help to save orangutans, Asian elephants, hornbills, tree kangaroos and other endangered animals. The day’s activities will include keeper talks, face painting, crafts and more. Free with zoo admission or membership. We hope to see you there!