Scientists Capture First-ever View into a Wild Snow Leopard Den

Stealthy and secretive, snow leopards are famous for being hard to find amid the rocky mountain crags they call home. But the recent discovery of two den sites revealed the first-ever glimpse of a wild snow leopard mother and her young cubs.

Scientists from Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust used a camera fixed on extended pole to capture remarkable video footage and photographs from a wild den.

Both snow leopards and their dens are exceptionally difficult to locate because of the cat’s elusive nature and its remote, rocky habitat in the mountains of Central Asia. Given these difficulties, even simple questions about snow leopard reproduction remain unknown.

“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 Tom McCarthy, Executive Director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program, in a press release.

The video and photographs were collected from two different den sites in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains. One den containing two cubs was in a narrow rock crevice. The other den, with a single cub, was located in a cave with a man-made rock wall across most of the opening. The scientists carefully entered each den to weigh, measure, and photograph all three cubs while the mother leopards were out hunting. Two were tagged with small microchip implants under their skin for future identification. The scientists then monitored the dens to make sure that the mother leopards returned to care for their young.

Snow leopards are endangered, with only 4,000 – 6,500 cats remaining in the wild. Their population has declined due to habitat loss, poaching, and lack of prey. Conflict with local people over livestock predation is also a problem.

The information gathered from these two den sites will add to scientists’ knowledge about snow leopard reproduction in the wild, and it and will benefit conservationists trying to protect these rare cats. In the words of famous biologist George Schaller: “When the last snow leopard has stalked among the crags, a spark of life will have gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence.”

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