Endangered snow leopard population lower than previously thought, suggests the first wildlife genetics study to come out of Nepal

Relatively little is known about the status and population of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia); it is believed that there may be somewhere between 350 and 500 distributed across Nepal’s northern frontier. This lack of knowledge is due to the snow leopard’s secretive behaviour, its inaccessible habitat, and the sparse distribution of its population. Although information regarding its population distribution is limited, it is believed, sadly, that its numbers are dwindling.

A study published recently in BMC Research Notes is the first wildlife genetics research to come out of Nepal, and is a collaborative effort between (amongst others) the World Wildlife Fund and the Nepalese Center for Molecular Dynamics. It seeks ultimately to work towards facilitating the conservation of the snow leopard by using genetic analysis to demonstrate that the snow leopard’s population is actually much smaller than previously thought, whilst establishing a more realistic estimate of the status of this fascinating animal.

By utilising alternative non-invasive methods involving the analysis of scat samples collected from two sites in Nepal, it was possible to acquire more accurate statistics regarding the endangered animal’s distribution. They found that only 19 of the original 71 samples were actually P. Uncia; of these 19 samples only, 10 were successfully genotyped. These were found to come from nine individual snow leopards; three males and six females.

Lead author Dibesh Karmacharya commented, "This method has the advantage over traditional methods – it is non-invasive and does not require us to disturb the cats in any way. We have also been able to show that traditional methods of counting snow leopards overestimate the size of the population."

The hope is that further research into this endangered animal will follow, resulting in a deeper understanding of its behaviour, thereby facilitating its conservation. Mr. Karmacharya went on to say “With more (and fresher) samples we will be able to investigate the family relationships, genetic diversity, social structure and territories of snow leopards, and better understand how to conserve this endangered animal."

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