Saturday, 18 December 2010

The snow leopard: ghost of the mountains




Nobody said anything, we just thought it: if the traps had been built yesterday, we might have got one. We might have joined the tiny number of people alive on this planet who have seen a snow leopard in the wild. This most elusive and mysterious of big cats comes along only slightly more often than a unicorn, and if you are not prepared you can regret it for the rest of your life.

The one person not troubled by regret was Johansson himself, for in the history of biological research into  Panthera uncia  no one has had more physical contact with wild snow leopards than this 33-year-old PhD student from Sweden. From 1982 to 2008 biologists succeeded in capturing only 15 snow leopards (for the purpose of attaching radio or GPS collars) in their natural habitat. In the past two years a further 12 have been caught by one man, Johansson, a research associate at the Grimso Wildlife Research Station, which is affiliated to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. He is, in the words of Dr Koustubh Sharma, the conservation biologist supervising the Swede's groundbreaking work in Mongolia, a 'snow leopard catching machine'.

Johansson represents the sharp end of the world's first long-term ecological study into the charismatic leopard, about which far less is known than any other of the big cats. Co-sponsored by two US-based non-profit organisations, the Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera, the programme is now in its third year and scheduled to run for at least 15 years. In late August of this year – as summer in the high desert shaded into chilly nights and misty dawns – I joined Johansson and his backup team in their remote mountain camp.

The J Tserendeleg Snow Leopard Research Centre is located in a mountain range in Mongolia's South Gobi province. In the far south-west of the province the Gobi Desert rises and crumples into a series of east-west ridges and valleys known as the Tost Mountains. This area, 75 miles long and 10 to 20 miles wide, is hardly classic snow leopard country, being neither particularly high – about 7,000ft – nor heavily snowbound in winter. But, for reasons that are not entirely understood, it sustains a high density of snow leopards. Based on his work of the past two years, Johansson puts the figure at more than 20.


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