Conservation news

Taking technology out in the cold: working to conserve snow leopards

A very alert snow leopard. Photo credit: Bernard Landgraf, Wikimedia Commons.A very alert snow leopard. Photo credit: Bernard Landgraf, Wikimedia Commons.

Conservation work is important not just in tropical rainforests, but also in snow-covered peaks and steep slopes, the home of snow leopards and a number of unusual ungulates, including blue sheep and Asiatic ibex. When these and other native prey are scarce, snow leopards may resort to eating more livestock, which turns herders against them. The Snow Leopard Conservancy works to advance community stewardship of snow leopards across their range in South and Central Asia through education, research, and grassroots conservation. The team aims to make living snow leopards a value asset, rather than a pest, to local livestock herders.

In a 2008 interview with, Dr. Rodney Jackson. Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, discussed snow leopards, the threats they face, and some of the challenges and opportunities of working with communities to conserve them. With an eye on his team’s application of technology in the field, we spoke recently with Rodney about how new technologies, together with existing conservation techniques, can help conserve this unique and elusive cat.

Some answers have been edited for clarity.

Dr. Rodney Jackson, Founder and Director of Snow Leopard Conservancy. Photo credit: Matt Mays

mongabay: Could you briefly describe the problem associated with snow leopards and livestock predation?

Rodney Jackson: Snow leopards specialize on the slopes of Asian mountain ranges – their preferred habitat is steep, rugged terrain with cliffs, ridges, gullies, and slopes interspersed with rocky outcrops, usually above 3,000 m elevation.

In these cold, dry environments, sheep and goat herding is one of the few economic options available to villagers, and the high value of cashmere and other woolen fabrics incentivizes herders to increase the sizes of their herds. Higher densities of domesticated animals lead to overgrazing of already sparse forage, which weakens the livestock and excludes from those areas the wild prey species that are the snow leopard’s natural food.

When snow leopards’ normal wild prey base disappears, the cats will turn to killing livestock. They raid mainly at night and can often break into corrals, which are typically poorly constructed, so they trap the sheep and goats inside but don’t keep predators out.

The snow leopards sometimes exacerbate the problem by killing multiple animals in a single raid, which can devastate a herding family. The herd is a family’s bank account, so people’s attitudes toward snow leopards are quite negative. Herders respond in two ways: 1) by maximizing their herd size, so that a major loss from a leopard attack or sudden cold spell does not wipe them out completely, and 2) by killing snow leopards in retaliation.

Snow leopard’s geographic range, across the highlands of Central Asia. Image credit: Snow Leopard Conservancy

mongabay: What methods are you currently using to deter snow leopards and other predators from attacking livestock?

Rodney Jackson: Given the importance of livestock to these communities, we are working with several methods. Constructing predator-proof nighttime corrals is key, but these are expensive, between US$800 and $4,000, so are a major investment. They are effective, but each household often maintains its animals separately, so we need multiple corrals in each settlement. In the Ladakh range in northern India , local communities provide mortar and stones for a wall, and we help with wire mesh roofs and secure doors, which are essential to preventing cats from entering.

We must also track the movements of snow leopards and their natural prey to help us understand their movement patterns, especially in areas near people, and then use this information to work with communities to set aside wildlife areas to allow natural snow leopard prey to thrive.

Finally, we can offer financial and technical support to communities, as they are key to protecting snow leopards and other wildlife in this region. This support includes livestock insurance and compensation programs, along with developing ecotourism opportunities, such as trekking and guiding.

mongabay: How effective are these methods?

Rodney Jackson: The corrals work quite well when properly constructed, but within a given leopard hotspot, there can be tens of corrals, and it’s not possible to know which corral will be attacked or when. Plus there are hundreds of small, isolated settlements, each of which depends on small-bodied livestock and thus use corrals, most of which are of poor construction.

Conflict hotspots are often in rugged and inaccessible terrain, and communication in this region is difficult and sporadic, given the communities’ isolation. The remoteness hinders and slows verification of livestock damage to determine compensation.

Herders with their sheep inside a predator-proofed corral. Photo: Snow Leopard Conservancy/SLC-IT

mongabay: Could you highlight 2-3 areas or technologies that have really changed or improved since that interview, either that they have gotten more effective, much cheaper or more accessible, or that you’ve started to use them frequently?

Rodney Jackson: More manufacturers are incorporating enhancements to wildlife collars, such as solar cells for extending collar operational lifespan, different systems for interactive up and downloads of data or configuring system parameters. Reliability is improving but has not attained the desired benchmark yet. For genetics, it is now possible to quantify prey diet of carnivores from their own scat. This has been done for snow leopards in Mongolia and Pakistan.

mongabay: We understand your team has been testing a newer technology, the Foxlights system, to deter snow leopards. Could you explain how you’ve used them?

Rodney Jackson: Foxlights are bright lights that flash intermittently and thought to emulate the presence of a person moving around outside, in order to deter predators. We started to use them last summer, and I have not heard of any problems from their use. While we really haven’t given them robust testing yet, the herders in our region like the lights so far. They understand and are willing to test the idea of lights scaring off the cats.

mongabay: Are there any drawbacks to using them? Do you see these as a long-term solution?

Rodney Jackson: I am worried about the cats habituating to the lights, as sometimes these remote herders get entranced by modern devices and think they are foolproof – but if the device fails, they will of course blame us and not the fact they left them out too long or during times when depredation losses are rare.

I think the lights could remain effective by varying the frequency of flashes, the colors, and display of the lights and even escalate the frequency of light flashes as the animal gets closer to the corral. This would help slow habituation, but it means having motion sensors, and those can be problematic. We also want herders to deploy the lights only during certain seasons and in hotspots to increase habituation time, but that is more work for the herders, who tend to become lax in their herding responsibilities.

A snow leopard polices its dry, rocky habitat. Photo credit: Steve Winter, National Geographic

mongabay: What emerging or new technologies have potential to improve your success?

Rodney Jackson: Ideally, we’d like to add a second physical deterrent along with the lights, such as a shock, so cats will associate the corral fence and any lights with something painful, as people in the US have done to prevent coyote predation on livestock.

The key to preventing attacks is to detect leopards early, and we’d like to use telemetry data that allows us to see not only where the cats move but also how they react to the lights over time. Tagging would also allow an escalated response, so that as a tagged snow leopard approaches a base station, the response or alert would increase in intensity. However, the lack of mobile coverage would limit our options for alerting herders.

Camera traps are great because they are triggered by a warm body passing by them. Something with passive heat motion sensors might work here, except there are non-target heat sources (people, dogs) walking around as well, and we wouldn’t want alarms triggered by these other movements. Cats approach from certain directions, so people can be strategic with where cameras are deployed. Another idea is to have the motion sensors send an alert only from dusk to dawn, which would reduce false alarms that are more likely to occur during daytime hours.

It would be worth trying existing technologies, for instance, setting a radio to play overnight – with voices and music – or with a motion sensor to render them operative only when something approaches, to see if this discourages and reduces livestock predation. But batteries are also expensive, so people don’t want to waste them. Here’s the place for solar powered deterrents.

mongabay: What limitations on technology have most impacted your work?

Rodney Jackson: Technology has been helpful, but devices are often expensive, unreliable, and hard to run. The easiest and cheapest technology tends to be most readily adopted, but it needs to be rugged and dependable. Reliability is really important, and there are many poor-quality tracking devices out there that are very unreliable — if you are going to go through the effort of tagging and monitoring an animal, you want that collar to work. So all tech designs need testing in diverse, rugged conditions. Unfortunately, many devices get their first real test by researchers during their projects, not before.

In reducing human-carnivore conflict, technology is just one tool – there is no magic bullet to solve the problem. It’s important to have a diverse strategy to address the conflict by working with herders to protect livestock and find alternative sources of income to offset losses, especially if they can be tied into wildlife protection.

It’s extremely important to involve people in decision-making, and I remind them that their grandfathers long co-existed with snow leopards, which required careful tending and monitoring of their livestock. Currently, village disagreements over what and how to protect the animals, and the hard work needed to create good fences, also impact the success of our work.

mongabay: How has the use of technology in large carnivore research and human-wildlife conflict evolved?

Rodney Jackson: Satellite tracking tags have helped us better understand snow leopard home range size, population size and density, as well as prey densities. They also allow us to match the GPS locations of an animal over time with a habitat map compiled using satellite images or aerial photos so that we can determine habitat features or conditions that are most important to snow leopards. However, the tags and the tagging process are expensive and invasive – tagging and monitoring snow leopards requires a team of trained biologists.

I’m somewhat disappointed in the speed of tech innovation and testing, as some of the more widely used devices, such as camera traps, are still costly or vulnerable to rugged conditions. We need technology that helps us learn where snow leopards go and under what conditions they approach human communities.

mongabay: What areas of improvement do you think can make the most impact?

Rodney Jackson: Batteries still don’t last long; currently, our tracking collars last about 12 months and give locations every few hours. Something in the range of 2-3 years would be more cost effective and give us information over subsequent years, helping account for seasonal and annual variability.

Rugged electronics that allow the researcher to interactively alter the amount of time between location fixes would be good, as would a timed automatic drop-off mechanism on the collar because catching snow leopards [to put on or take off a collar] is really tough.

We’d also like to be able to track cats on a near real-time basis to know their whereabouts relative to human settlements, along with using accelerometers for energetic studies.

mongabay: Are there limits to what technologies we can put in the field?

Rodney Jackson: In Asia, governments are very cautious about people immobilizing endangered animals, so permits are difficult to obtain. Similarly, the general public is becoming resistant to the handling of animals, which makes it harder to get permits, so we continue to explore alternative means to get movement data.

We would like try deploying drones with InfraRed sensors to survey prey species at night or early morning to estimate their population densities, but in our area these animals live at 10,000-12,000 ft (3,000-4,000 m) elevation, with updrafts that would likely limit drone use. We’d be happy to serve as a testing ground!

mongabay: What aspect of the tech sector most excites you, when thinking about its potential for wildlife research and conservation applications? (What are 2-3 key uses of advanced and emerging technology in wildlife research?)

Rodney Jackson: Timeliness of information from field devices is still an issue – if cat activates a camera trap, it would be great to get that information quickly, especially if the camera is near human settlement areas. Also, you’d want a thumbnail image, not just a text message, from a camera trap, so you’d know the species, and it would help to be able to send tiny images to the cloud for storage and sharing with donors or the general public. Ideally, the camera could do some processing that could distinguish among different target species, through devices like those cameras that can read license plates, to give more image information. For something like this, perhaps the security industry would be a source of ideas.

mongabay: Finally, imagine that you have access to a team of hardware and software engineers – what wildlife-related technology would you like this team to design and build?

Rodney Jackson: A new generation of low-cost tracking and camera devices that communicate with users or a base station would allow researchers to track more animals and keep better tabs on them. These would give us a better chance to keep snow leopards far from livestock. Perhaps we could fit a cat with a GPS collar that can communicate with a base station at the corral or field, and the animal approaching the geofence would cause a beep or alarm to ratchet up in frequency. Radio-frequency networks that provide communication among devices, such as camera traps, could transmit these alarms and improve the cameras’ effectiveness.

We would really like a non-invasive means of detecting the species over a large area. This could be camera traps that can process what species they see (so that they send only desired images) or a collar that is programmable, depending on the objectives. Alternatively, where we identify sites where cats travel or come to scent mark, we would love a device that could obtain DNA hair samples of individuals and a DNA reader in the field that would let us determine a species identity or even identify different cats without having to anesthetize them.

Computer-driven algorithms that can distinguish animal pelage patterns would help us enumerate snow leopard populations, but they are also problematic, as the snow leopards have both rosettes and spots; rosettes tend to change shape and sharpness as the animal moves its body. We’ve tried to find funding to use stable isotopes of hair to identify the prey eaten by an individual cat, to get winter and summer diets, but snow leopards don’t seem to like the hair traps! Or more accurately, we have not developed the perfect non-invasive hair-trap that cats would just love to cheek-rub against!