The cameras were set up in the Zorkul nature reserve close to the Afghan border in Tajikistan at the beginning of August, and left there until October. Dr Alex Diment is the Capacity and Development Manager for the Eurasia Programme for the charity Fauna & Flora International (FFI). He told Wired.co.uk that the FFI and Panthera team set up the camera traps to cover an area of around 15 sq km, which stretched across eight separate valleys.
The 11 cameras photographed five separate snow leopards living in one of these valleys, and this included a family with two cubs — one of which took a shining to the cameras and carried one off.
Diment says that the camera traps have made a huge difference in conservationists. “Camera traps have been an amazing piece of technology, and are really maturing as a technology, becoming reliable and giving great results. They are giving us the ability to research animals, which were previously almost entirely unknown.”
Previously, adds Diment, conservationists would count scrapes — “a marking place, where the cats scrape out the soil and usually defecate and scent mark the area.” These are usually visible for weeks, if not months, against the side of cliffs or large rocks. Conservationists still use this scrape sites as they are prime areas to set up the cameras. “Trouble is, you don’t know if it’s one cat scraping lots, or many individuals. Camera traps give you this ability, as you can tell them apart by their unique markings,” says Diment.
The photographs confirming the cats’ presence have spurred immediate action as the snow leopard population is believed to have dropped at least 20 percent in the past 16 years. Diment says that the FFI team is now training rangers in the Zorkul nature reserve “on how to work in the harsh field conditions, and how to combat illegal poaching and other threats”. While the cameras made a huge difference to the data collating abilities of the conservationists, admits Diment: “…there is no substitute for good old-fashioned ranger patrols, and so the most important piece of technology right now is a few horses and yaks for the rangers to get around on.”
He adds: “We’re also working with the reserve scientists to develop knowledge about the special features of the site.” The team will be advising on alternative sources of funding including ecotourism.
And a return trip is planned. Diment explains: “We hope to repeat the camera trap survey this summer when we will also monitor bird numbers around the lake, and numbers of ibex and marco-polo sheep.”
Image: Panthera/FFI Source: Wired.co.uk