Counting sheep on the trail of the Mountain Ghost

Snow leopard (camera trap)

‘All three of us were exhausted. Wenzha, our Tibetan driver, stared at a flower in front of his feet. Edward, our young Chinese-American volunteer, sat with his head down. Surrounded by vertical cliffs we knew the only way to the next valley was to climb the 40° slope to the hilltop. Around halfway up I looked back to check on my partners. To my surprise I saw Edward start to walk back down, ‘What is he thinking?’ I thought. As I watched, he jumped back from the cliff, with an astonished look on his face, waving at me frantically. I hoped he hadn’t seen a bear. I began to walk as fast as possible towards him. As I drew closer, I read his lips:

“Snow leopard!”’

These are the words of Lingyun Xiao, Researcher at Peking University, who, together with her team, received CLP funding in 2013 for their project researching the availability of snow leopard prey in China’s Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve. The team recently submitted a preliminary report which contains exciting insights into what it is like to work in some of the most remote and rugged sites on earth. Their project started when they embarked on a trip with other collaborators to monitor blue sheep on the Tibetan Plateau. Blue sheep, which weigh up to 75kg and have massive horns – prized by game hunters – are a main prey species for snow leopards.

The team surveyed blue sheep and livestock in seven sites each year in different seasons in order to help develop a conservation strategy. Besides doing their own survey, the team worked alongside local community members. They helped the locals to start three of their own wildlife monitoring teams: one focusing on blue sheep and the other two on snow leopards.

Involving mountain communities in conservation

‘Working with communities to conserve wildlife is as impactful as it is rewarding. Gaining people’s trust is no easy task though and what might seem standard to conservationists can be quite baffling to the locals! The most important lesson we have learnt so far is to always be prepared to plan according to the real situation. It is very important to listen to the local herders’ voice before trying to involve them in conservation.’

Sanjiangyuan, located in Qinghai, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in China, is one of the most important areas for snow leopard conservation. Although the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve covers a large portion of the area, local herders still live inside the reserve. Based on previous successes in Yunta village, Lingyun Xiao tried to involve the local community in her camera-trap research.

‘It was a decision made partly out of frustration. Last December we set out camera traps at eight sites. However, in the first village I found several of them had been taken by the villagers. Even when we’d asked them not to! Camera traps are quite mysterious for the local people and it’s understandable that they don’t want strange things showing up on their land. Involving them in field work can make a real difference.’

The team taught the community how a camera trap works and asked for their help to take care of the cameras, helping to build trust with people there. Apart from protecting their camera equipment, the team have found that a good relationship with local herders is important to ensure accurate data from their surveys.

‘To investigate the relationship between livestock and wildlife, livestock numbers are crucial data; however, it’s always a sensitive topic to discuss here. By chatting and interviewing we gained valuable information about the herders’ livelihood. By understanding each of the stories we heard, our research can give an answer a little closer to reality.’

Ideal conditions for the mountain ghost

In April 2014 the team were lucky enough to spot a whole family of snow leopards, after braving the terrible winter weather in Soujia on the Tibetan Plateau.

‘This kind of weather is hard for us, but it’s ideal for snow leopards that are looking to hunt. All day we kept our eyes busy, hoping to witness a snow leopard hunting for wild prey. We had almost given up hope when we caught a glimpse of two figures sneaking along a cliff. The big tails could undoubtedly only belong to one animal: the mountain ghost.’

At the head of the Mekong River, Zaduo County, Qinghai, is located within the largest continuous snow leopard habitat in China. An established team of 20 local herders deployed 40 research cameras in the area as part of a four-day trap camera training course in May 2014, to monitor snow leopards in the area. The study was supported by Shanshui Conservation Center, Peking University and the local township government in the county.

‘The village where the cameras were placed is also home to a sacred mountain named Namanula. To show their respect, the local people never dig medicinal herbs or caterpillar fungus around the mountain, even though the fungus is a major source of income for the community. In the local religious context, snow leopards are considered to belong to the mountain god, which is helpful in garnering even more support in the conservation of this iconic flagship species.’

Snow leopards as a flagship for landscape level conservation

While discussing external threats such as poaching and mining, the members of the village agreed that snow leopards could be used as a tool to protect the village. One herder concluded,

“We all see news about snow leopards frequently, on TV, newspaper and internet. Of course all of us want to protect our homeland, but before we didn’t know how. Now through the camera trap pictures we can tell outsiders what an important place we are protecting. Snow leopards could be one powerful tool.”

‘During a meeting, staff showed a map of snow leopard distribution in the world, and the local herders were fascinated by how important their homeland, the Tibetan Plateau, is for snow leopard conservation. Using his fist to demonstrate the Earth, one herder exclaimed, “Before we always thought snow leopards were everywhere in the world, but actually they only occupy a tiny, tiny piece of the earth’s surface.”’

For the final stage of this CLP-funded project, the team will continue their field work, collecting camera trap data in early 2015 and analysing the impact of livestock on the populations of blue sheep. In the future Lingyun Xiao and her team plan to carry out more analysis across several seasons and the team hope to be able to establish the density of snow leopards across the region.

‘We plan to continue our community-based monitoring even after the project. The surrounding villages show lots of interest on monitoring their own wildlife. They want to know their wildlife better and to use the baseline information about their wildlife to fight against external threats. We will try our best to support them.’

Some extracts from Lingyun Xiao’s report have previously appeared in an article published by the Snow Leopard Trust. Image credits: Snow leopard, Lingyun Xiao; Surveying blue sheep, Lingyun Xiao; Researchers and community members, Dawa Jiangcai; Snow leopard cubs in den, Edward Zhu.

Poop – a non-invasive key to flying fox DNA


Tammy Mildenstein tells of her team’s slightly unusual flying fox research technique.

Our team has recently discovered a new technique for learning about flying fox populations, and it is all about poop!

Bat Count Philippines has been working in the Philippines for more than eleven years on flying fox research and conservation (Pteropus vampyrus). In that time, the team has surveyed numerous bat roosts, generating important baseline data on the Philippines’ flying fox populations. The next step for effective conservation management is to learn how these populations are connected and interact with each other. In other words, what are the dynamics of the Philippines’ flying fox metapopulation?

Genetic tools are the obvious answer to metapopulation questions, but genetic samples often come from tissue, making this type of research invasive and often detrimental to sensitive species. Determined to find a way around this problem, our team has spent two years developing a method for getting flying fox genetic material without disturbing the bats: from their droppings.

Although genetics research labs have been using fecal samples to extract DNA for scores of species, many were skeptical whether the process would work for flying foxes. They noted that food passes quickly through the guts of these bats and the amount of any one feces is small, so the chance of finding sufficient intestinal cells seemed unlikely.

Our team decided that it was well worth a try. The team collected flying fox droppings under roost trees and sent them to our teammates at the University of Montana, where we have spent the past year tweaking fecal DNA-extraction kits to obtain and analyze flying fox DNA from the tiny splats. The result is a new protocol for collecting and extracting genetic material from flying fox feces.

The use of fruit bat feces as a source of genetic information is a big break through for our team and for international flying fox conservation. By getting DNA from bat droppings, researchers can study flying foxes and support conservation management without having to capture, handle or harm flying foxes. In addition to being completely non-invasive, fruit bat droppings are abundant, simple and inexpensive to collect, and much easier to get permits for than tissue. Our team is excited about how this new technique is going to open up the powerful toolbox of conservation genetics for the protective management of sensitive flying fox taxa throughout the Old World!

Anglers in Argentina conserve sharks in Marine Protected Areas

Angler trained by the CLP team releasing a tagged bronze whaler shark in Mar del Plata

Martín Cuevas (“Involving Anglers As Key Stakeholders in a Shark Conservation Programme,” 2013)

Sharks are important top predators that preserve equilibrium in the seas. Due to overfishing, Argentina’s shark populations have dramatically decreased resulting in several species being categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Sport fishing is one important cause of shark mortality in Argentina. Our 2013 CLP funded team has been working to address this threat with great success thus far.

The aim of this project was to involve angler communities as key stakeholders in a shark conservation programme. By informing anglers of the importance of shark conservation and training them to tag sharks, the goal was to promote catch and release and decrease shark killing for sport.

Through our team’s efforts, 62 anglers were trained during six tagging workshops and seven individual meetings between October and December 2013. Work was concentrated in four Marine Protected Areas (MPA, 5,615 km2), integrating 13 coastal fishing sites along the coastline of Buenos Aires and Río Negro provinces (> 1,000 km), as well as two sites in southern Patagonia, Santa Cruz.

Workshops were divided into two parts: theoretical and practical. The theoretical side focused on the biology and ecology of sharks and the current conservation status of local populations. The practical component was related to tag-recapture methodology. Participants were given a tagging kit: dart tags, an applicator, and a procedure manual.

Following these workshops, 50 fishing groups now have a trained angler, 20% of which are actually tagging sharks. Thus far, a total of 1,151 tags were delivered to anglers and 196 sharks (seven species) were tagged and released.

Today, anglers no longer kill sharks during tournaments in three MPAs; in two MPAs, participation in a tournament requires tagging of all competitive sized sharks using our tags. The most recent victory was in March 2014 when shark tournaments in Ría Deseado Natural Reserve (Santa Cruz) stopped a 46 year old practice of killing sharks and now catch and release. This project demonstrates that anglers can be involved in shark conservation programmes as key stakeholders, with conservation messages tailored to match their motivation. The team works to keep involvement active, involve new anglers, and tag more sharks. We are thinking about the next steps of the project and are eager to continue.

For more information please visit the group’s Facebook page: Conservar Tiburones en Argentina or contact Martín at:


Supporting high fliers, and other life forms…

Vulture group

In its original guise back in 1985, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), as it is known today, funded only a brace of projects, both focused on birds. The programme has grown and evolved significantly over time and now our teams’ work covers a broad range of taxonomic groups. Nevertheless, during its distinguished history, almost one third of the projects supported by the CLP have related to threatened bird species.

Generally speaking, conservationists tend to have some interest in birds, or at least to understand and appreciate their importance. Over the centuries, birds have been bringers of good fortune, harbingers of death, symbols of love and hope. They have been adored, persecuted and widely studied, but rarely ignored. The relative abundance and accessibility of the more common species means that birds frequently provide the catalyst that sparks an interest in nature among the wider public. Almost half of the world’s 10,000 bird species have a practical value in our lives. Many are economically important: colonial powers thrived on the guano trade; birds consume insects that would otherwise eat our crops; they disperse seeds and pollinate plants; and they are worth billions of dollars to the food industry, tourism and trade. Evidently, bird conservation is no longer just about birds, as two recent CLP-funded projects illustrate.

Carrion poisoning

In Southeast Asia, vulture numbers have been in free fall, plummeting by over 90% since 1992. The cause and speed of the decline initially left specialists baffled, until researchers discovered that the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, used by vets on cattle, was lethally toxic to vultures that consumed the flesh of dead livestock. Veterinary diclofenac was banned in India and Nepal in 2006, but was immediately substituted with another form of the drug, and vultures continued to die.

Waste disposal

Vultures may not be the prettiest or most popular of birds, but they provide a crucial service by devouring rotting carcasses that would otherwise pose human health risks and attract packs of rabid dogs. The socio-economic impact of a sharp reduction in vulture numbers is considerable. It has been calculated that the demise of vultures and subsequent increase in rabid dogs in India may have resulted in around 50,000 additional human deaths from rabies, at a probable cost of over US$30 billion to the nation’s economy. A team of young Nepalese conservationists supported by the CLP and Save Our Species completed a project that had fed into a regional campaign to save Asia’s vultures from extinction. The team surveyed vulture nests to record breeding success rates and also monitored potential threats (intentional poisoning, habitat destruction, electrocution from power lines, nest disturbance and direct attacks on vultures), but the main success of the project was its contribution to the removal of diclofenac from the market and the promotion of an alternative drug, meloxicam.

Safe landing

The combined efforts of the Nepalese team, other conservation organisations, local government, the veterinary fraternity and local communities led to Nawalparasi district in central Nepal, on the border with India, being declared a Diclofenac Free Zone (DFZ). The DFZ was one of 11 such zones, declared roughly simultaneously, which collectively cover an area totalling over 22,000 km2 (approximately the size of New Jersey or Wales) and constitute the world’s first provisional vulture safe area.

Two birds, one zone

Another CLP-funded team faced a different challenge. Rather than ranging across whole continents, their target species – the chestnut-bellied hummingbird and Niceforo’s wren, are confined to the Chicamocha Canyon, nestling in the Colombian Andes. This arid landscape, characterised by spiny shrubs and cacti, has been subjected to considerable land fragmentation, burning for agriculture, and goat grazing, which have destroyed all but 1.5% of the original dry forest.

In addition to tackling the principal threats to these birds, the team also set about protecting areas of suitable habitat. The findings of its surveys and ecological studies led to the site being designated as an Important Bird Area – an internationally recognised status highlighting it as a priority site for the conservation of birds, as well as other animals and plants.

Spreading their wings

Two years later, the team went one step further and, collaborating closely with landowners and a national NGO (Fundación ProAves), secured an area of land under more formal protection as a natural bird reserve. They subsequently set up their own organisation, Fundación Conserva, to strengthen conservation efforts in the region by identifying and safeguarding more suitable areas of habitat and involving the local community in their activities.

Not strictly for the birds

Although some members of the conservation community tend to get into a flap about the amount of funding directed towards bird conservation, the reality is that bird conservation is often the gateway to the protection of many other species, ecosystems and communities.