PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD BISCHOF, NORWEGIAN UNIVERSITY OF LIFE SCIENCES AND MUHAMMAD ALI NAWAZ, SNOW LEOPARD FOUNDATION PAKISTAN
Published January 25, 2014
The cat's out of the bag—or, should we say, the mountains.
Notoriously elusive snow leopards have been caught by a camera trap in northern Pakistan as part of a three-year study by scientists with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The main collaborator in the study is the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan.
With only half a year left to complete their study, the scientists published a report on their use of camera traps in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.
Snow leopards (Panthera uncia), which live in the snow-capped mountains of Central Asia, are known as "gray ghosts" or "ghost cats" because they frequently hide from people and other animals.
But researcher Richard Bischof is hoping to shed more light on the shy beast by leading a non-invasive study of snow leopards using scat analysis and photography. (See snow leopard pictures in National Geographic magazine.)
"You can garner lots of information from these images, including insights into distribution and behavior, etc.," Bischof said.
Unique coat patterns of the spotted cats also allows the identification of individuals and aid estimation of population size.
There are an estimated 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards in the wild, and the species is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
That's why big cat conservationists are studying the leopards in an effort to learn more about them and keep them from going extinct. (Read about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
Cats on Camera
Photographing snow leopards has a storied history: In November 1971, National Geographic magazine published the first ever pictures of snow leopards in the wild—photographed also in Pakistan.
More than 40 years later, it's not much easier to capture the cats on camera.
"We are working in very remote areas, at high elevation, and in rough terrain. This brings along a lot of challenges but also makes our work a fantastic adventure. Non-invasive methods such as camera traps and scat-based DNA analysis allow us to study this secretive carnivores in their mountain environment," Bischof said.
The project would not be possible without the support from local communities, wildlife agencies, and conservation organizations.
"Most importantly, I am working with a skilled team of Pakistani biologists, which are now experts at camera trapping carnivores."
The team has learned that if they place the cameras in random locations, they have a poor chance of getting snow leopards on camera.
"Once we detect sign of carnivores, such as tracks, we'll study the local area in an attempt to maximize our chance of photographically capturing the animals," he said. (See "Snow Leopards Need To Be Protected ... But How?")
The team has been placing cameras in the pathways of traveling snow leopards, which is how they got these amazing photos.
"We use digital cameras with a motion sensor and an infrared flash to take photos both during the day and at night. Often people that use camera traps can set [them] in trees. We don't have any trees at high elevation. So we use steel poles and attach the cameras to them."
The snow leopard shown in the series of photos "saw the pole with the camera and walked right up to it, looked into the camera, and then walked past it."
Bischof's team has also been collecting snow leopards scat for DNA analysis. The data will reveal more about the status and ecology of carnivores in their study region.
"Admittedly, a photo of snow leopard is more glorious than a piece of scat. However, genetic methods allow us to extract a lot of information from scats, including the species and the sex of the animal, its individual identity, and even its diet. Combining camera trapping and genetic sampling will give us a more comprehensive picture of carnivore ecology in our study area."
"Camera trap photos of wildlife capture people's imagination. That in itself is valuable, as it can help raise awareness. For wildlife ecologists, camera traps and other non-invasive methods are a valuable source of data that can help us learn about the ecology, and ultimately better conserve, secretive wild species."
Follow Angie McPherson on Twitter.
The most elusive and the most beautiful cat. You will be lucky to see a snow leopard while hiking in northern Pakistan.
The second to last picture looks like it saw itself and smirked because it recognized just how awesome it was.
How beautiful. How majestic. I only hope this study doesn't send amateurs and thrill seekers looking for these snow leopards.
Looks like she knows what's going on and doesn't appreciate it - they don't like paparazzi either, Alec Baldwin!
In Newport, Rhode Island we have been visited by some thirty Snowy Owls this winter; but, no reported sightings of even one Snow Leopard has reached my eyes nor ears in our locale.
Yet, this fine Angie McPherson article, "Rare Pictures: Snow Leopards Caught in Camera Trap", has made one or two "ghost cats" seem to be mysteriously sleuthing through this afternoon's new-fallen snow here in beautiful downtown Newport.
So beautiful! These animals are so majestic. I wish there were more in the wild. How can people kill and encroach on their habitat? We can learn from them.
Superb technical work...thank you to rsrchrs and photog MUHAMMAD ALI NAWAZ and Richard Bischof for your tenacity and vision. Thank you to Nat Geo for sharing..and for funding some I am sure. The first thought that came to me...."Damn I wish they lived in another country other than Pakistan"
Lets hope thy remain elusive and ignored by all warring tribes and corrupt politicians tc
It is great to see them in the wild. The only one I ever saw was in the Toledo, Ohio zoo. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to get those photos, great job.
These animals are so amazing. The pictures captured make me feel like I am right there in the wild. What a great adventure!!!
I cannot thank these researchers enough for their tenacity & commitment under severe circumstances, in capturing images of this illusively magnificent animal! Hats off to all of you. I salute your efforts
These cats - these photos - take my breath away! Thank you Richard Bischof and Muhammad Ali Nawaz!! I won't forget you, or these snow leopards....
They have to be the most beautiful of all big cats, These images are some of the best I have seen. They are by far my favourite of all of the leopards. Richard Bischof has a rare talent. Thank you National Geographic.
I just don't understand that we have to practically to beg people to save those precious animals. Any one who has a heart will protect them
@George Sullivan these pictures are from pakistan. There are no snow leopards in the USA. They are a central asian species.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest News Video
During a recent voyage along South America's eastern coast, Justin Hofman was surprised to get close-up footage of an unfazed mother whale and her newborn calf.